The death of a parent is one of the most traumatic events a child can experience and it can have many grave short-term psychological consequences. A new study has suggested that the extent of these consequences could well be an increased risk of mortality going into early adulthood.
The study was published in PLOS Medicine and conducted by a team of researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark. The team found that individuals who experienced the loss of a mother or father during their childhood years had a higher risk of mortality in the years after the death than people who had not lost a parent during their childhood.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) state that when confronted with death, children grieve as adults do and commonly experience feelings such as anger, anxiety, guilt, insecurity and sadness. Just as with adults, grief in children can also lead to behavioral changes.
Previous research, such as a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, has found that children who lose a parent become vulnerable to depression and alcohol or substance abuse.
The aforementioned study, conducted by Dr. David Brent and colleagues, specifically found that major depression and drug abuse was more common in children 21 months after a parent’s death than among subjects who had not lost a parent.
The 2009 study was relatively small, examining a total of 344 participants and assessing the bereaved participants 9 and 21 months after the death of a parent. The new study conducted by the Danish research team was far more extensive, examining subjects from three north European nations.
Data was taken for the study from the national registries of three Scandinavian countries. This information detailed the births of all children born in Denmark between 1968-2008, all children born in Sweden between 1973-2006 and 89% of children born in Finland from 1987-2006.
Of the children born during this period, 2.6% (189,094) lost a parent when they were between the ages of 6 months and 18 years. The follow-up period for the study ranged from 1-40 years, and during this time it was recorded that 39,683 individuals had died.
The authors of the study found that, during the follow-up period, individuals who had experienced the death of a parent had a 50% greater risk of mortality compared with those who had not. This elevated risk continued into early adulthood, unaffected by the age of the child when the parental death occurred.
The increased risk of mortality was found to be greater in individuals whose parent had died from unnatural causes (84% increase) as opposed to natural causes (33% increase), with suicide being the cause of death that resulted in the greatest increase in risk.
The authors say their findings suggest that this increased risk was universal across their study group:
”Parental death in childhood was associated with a long-lasting increased mortality risk from both external causes and diseases, regardless of child’s age at bereavement, sex of the child, sex of the deceased parent, cause of parental death, as well as population characteristics like socioeconomic background.”
All of the three countries supplying data for the study are high-income countries. The conclusion drawn from this fact is that the findings are not likely due to health care needs or material lack. It is more likely that the results are connected to the impact of death on health and social well-being, or even genetic reasons.
Despite the vast size of the sample data used for the study, it is unrepresentative of low-income countries or indeed other geographical areas of the world. Future research could examine whether these results correlate elsewhere on the globe.
The authors say their findings highlight not only the need for health and social support for bereaved children, but also that this need may have to cover an extended time period. It is widely accepted that coping with death is difficult in itself, but this research gives further insight into just how difficult it is.
Recently, Medical News Today reported on a study that found teenagers who identified themselves as belonging to an “alternative” subculture were nearly 7 times more likely to attempt suicide.