The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Fatherless Children—Hurting All the Way to the Bone

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

When fatherless families began to multiply in the seventies and eighties, progressives dismissed fears about the consequences of this social development. Children, they assured one and all, can flourish in widely diverse family forms, including mother-only families. Only social troglodytes would suppose that children actually need the kind of upbringing found in an intact family comprising both a father and a mother. Decades later, progressives are busy giving a new round of assurances—about the beneficence of same-sex marriage and of transgender social identities, for instance. They are far too busy to notice just how profoundly and lastingly a generation of children has suffered because of the fatherlessness they once dismissed as inconsequential. But the sobering evidence of that suffering continues to accumulate. The latest addition appears in a study recently published by a team of researchers at the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles, on the relationship between the family structure children experience while growing up and their adult bone strength.

To gauge the impact of childhood family structure on adult bone strength, the UCLA scholars parse data from a national sample of 708 adults who were between the ages of 25 and 75 in 1995-1996 and who were surveyed again 9-10 years later. These data clearly show that “growing up in a single-parent household was associated with lower bone strength in adulthood” than was growing up in a two-parent family.   

Further scrutiny of the data in fact established that compared to those peers who grew up in two-parent households, the bones of adults who had grown up in a single-parent household were significantly weaker in compression strength, bending strength, and impact strength ( p < 0.05 for all three comparisons). 

As they try to explain their findings, the researchers consider the possibility that the trauma of losing a parent (typically a father) through death or divorce might account for the disparity in bone strength. However, after further statistical analysis, the researchers conclude, “The experience of parental death or divorce during childhood was not independently associated with adult bone strength once we accounted for the number of years spent living in a single-parent household, suggesting that the event of parental death or divorce during childhood does not by itself have direct effects on bone health independent of the subsequent chronic exposure to single parenting.”

In further reflection on their findings, the UCLA analysts reason that the absence of a parent might harm adult bone health as a consequence of “maladaptive health behaviors such as smoking and underage or heavy alcohol intake,” all of which are more common among children from single-parent households than among peers from intact families. Additionally, the researchers note that bone health may deteriorate because of the “decreased physical activity [that] is more common in children in single-parent families” than in children from two-parent families. Finally, the researchers conjecture that the disparity they have documented in bone health might reflect the fact that “many children living with single parents are economically disadvantaged.”

But despite the plausibility of all these conjectural explanations of their findings, when the researchers reexamine their data, they find that “the associations between the single-parent childhood and lower adult bone strength were not explained by childhood or adult socioeconomic status or health behaviors over the life course.”

Unable to account for the disparity in bone health as a consequence of differences in socioeconomic background or behavioral differences, the researchers wonder if “the environmental and psychological stresses of growing up with a single parent could directly affect the hormonal milieu in the child, thereby affecting bone accrual.” This conjectural chain of causation strikes them as quite plausible because “children living with single parents face more emotional and environmental stressors than children from two-parent families.” These differences in stressors can translate into potentially damaging elevation of cortisol levels in children’s blood and can even trigger “dysregulation of the sympathetic nervous system, as well as chronic inflammation.”

But regardless of the biochemical linkage between family structure and bone health, the researchers fear that their findings carry “important implications for the bone health of future cohorts of adults” at a time when “large and growing numbers of children . . . spend much of their first 16 years in a single-parent household.” These implications appear particularly alarming for women. The UCLA scholars calculate that “women who experienced nine or more years of single parenting in childhood would be at 14%–19% relative increase (relative to women who did not have a single parent for most of childhood) in fracture hazard when going through the menopausal transition, and 31%–41% relative increase in 10-year hip fracture risk in the post-menopause.”

Clearly, those who rely on progressive theories of family life are putting in peril both life and limb.

(Carolyn J. Crandall et al., “Adult Bone Strength of Children from Single-Parent Families: The Midlife in the U.S. Study,” Osteoporosis International 26.3 [2015]: 931-42.)