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Researchers find descendants of Civil War POWs have shorter life spans

(Jae Su/Daily Bruin)

By Qiaozhen Wu

Nov. 15, 2018 1:20 a.m.

UCLA researchers found the life spans of descendants of Civil War prisoners of war are shorter than those of people not descended from POWs, suggesting trauma might affect the long-term health of future generations.

Researchers led by Dora Costa, a UCLA professor of economics, examined records in the National Archives to track the life spans of the sons of Union soldiers who were captured during the Civil War as prisoners. The study compared the life spans of children born to POW camp survivors to the life spans of sons born to non-POW veterans.

The study shows that the sons of ex-POWs in the Civil War are 1.11 times more likely to die at any given age after 45 than the sons of non-POWs. Sons born earlier in the war under poor nutritional conditions were more likely to die at any age after 45 years old than those born under better conditions during the later part of the war.

Costa said the study implies the trauma experienced by the father can be transmitted to the sons, and only to sons, since the study showed that the life spans of daughters are not affected.

“The effect of the war on health is passed on to sons and sons only, which implies that the transmission can be caused by (genetic change),” Costa said.

Judith Carroll, assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA, said this transmission of health effects from father to son is not yet widely studied in her field.

“The effect of mother’s health on (children) is better established by research,” Carroll said. “Although there are some instances that indicates the paternal age can affect children’s health, most studies (focus) on the maternal mutation.”

Carroll added ample research in the field of genetics supports the idea that maternal health can affect children. However, she added that studies mostly show the immediate effects the mother’s health has on the fetus, but not much information is available to support the long-term effects shown in the study.

“For example, overabundant folic acid during pregnancy will harm the child, but the effect will be immediate and distinguishable upon birth,” Carroll said. “However, I have never seen a study on the effect of father on the son, and especially a long-term effect, which is very surprising for me. This (implies) that the effect of the father’s health might be bigger than we previously thought.”

The study also shows that better nutritional condition of the mother during pregnancy can alleviate the negative effect the father’s health has on the fetus, Costa added.

“There is an interactive effect of the health of both the mother and the father. Sons of mothers with better (nutrient conditions) are less likely to die,” Costa said. “Habits such as exercising also matter.”

Costa said future studies could look at the health condition of grandsons of the POWs to see if the effect is heritable across generations.

Paul Abramson, a professor in the department of psychology, and Tania Abramson, lecturer in the Honors Collegium, said lab studies based on specific psychology measurements would enable further understanding of the study’s results.

“The absence of any psychologically meaningful measures … is a glaring omission in the discussion of these findings. Did men who had the worst POW experiences treat their sons differently than their daughters?” Abramson said. “Did parents in the middle of the 19th century treat boy and girl children identically? The list goes on.”

Carroll added the study results can guide researchers in epigenetics to examine the effect of fathers’ health on children in a controlled lab setting.

“The researchers gained access to historical data during the Civil War, and the condition of the prisoners is hard to replicate in a lab setting for humans,” Carroll said. “However, we might be able to study the offspring of mice under stress and focus on the health condition of the father.”

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