Loss of parent during childhood raises mortality risk

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Children who experience death of parent have higher risk of mortality.
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The death of parent is one of the most difficult experiences a child can go through, causing them to suffer intense heartbreak and temporary, but severe psychological problems. And, now, a new study suggests that losing a parent during childhood also raises the risk of mortality in adulthood.

Researchers from Denmark conducted the study, which was recently published in PLOS Medicine. The team found that children who lost a parent had an increased risk of mortality in the years following their parent's death, compared with those who had not lost a parent during childhood.

Reasons cited for the higher mortality rate included how the loss of a parent can leave a child more vulnerable to feelings of depression and anxiety, as well as other negative feelings like insecurity and guilt.

Previous studies have resulted in similar findings. After all, children also mourn the death of a loved one and commonly experience the same stages of grief that adults go through when confronted with the loss of a parent or other significant person in their life.

In a study published earlier this year in the British Medical Journal, researchers found a small, but significant risk of developing psychosis in children who have experienced the death of a close family member.

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A 2009 study, which was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, showed that young people who had a parent die were also more susceptible to using drugs and alcohol to soothe their feelings of grief. Indeed, such study found that substance abuse and major depression were most likely to occur 21 months following the death of the child's parent, compared with those who had not lost a parent during childhood.

In contrast, this newest study conducted by Denmark researchers was significantly more comprehensive and in-depth than the one conducted in 2009, which involved only 344 children who were grieving the loss of a parent who had died in the last 9 to 21 months.

For the new study, data was taken from children born in Denmark, Sweden and Finland during a period of years ranging from 1968 to 2008.

Among the children born during that time, 2.6 percent had a parent die when the child was between the ages of 6 months to 18 years old. Those children were then tracked over a period of up to 40 years. As a result, the researchers found that those who had lost a parent during childhood had a 50 percent increased risk of dying in the years following their parent’s death, regardless of how old the child was at the time.

This increased risk of mortality persisted well into early adulthood, and for children who lost a parent due to unnatural causes, that risk was 84 percent higher, compared with 33 percent for those whose parent died of natural causes. Children who had a parent commit suicide had the greatest mortality risk of all.

The researchers suggest that their study illustrates the importance of providing the right kind of support for grieving children to address both their health and social needs – and to continue providing such support for an extended period of time.

SOURCE: Mortality after Parental Death in Childhood: A Nationwide Cohort Study from Three Nordic Countries, Li et al., PLoS Medicine, doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001679, published 22 July 2014, abstract.

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