Children can have a shortened lifespan following the death of a parent, according to a Danish study.
The researchers looked at a range of Scandinavian countries and found children who had lost a parent between the ages of 6 months to 18 years had a 50% greater risk of mortality.
The study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, finds that individuals who lost either a mother or a father during childhood had a greater risk of mortality in the years following the parent’s death compared with people unaffected by parental death during childhood.
Jiong Li and colleagues from Aarhus University in Denmark combined data from all children born in Denmark (1968 to 2008) and Sweden (1973 to 2006), and 89% of children born in Finland (1987 to 2006).
Of these children, 189,094 (2.6%) lost a parent when the child was between 6 months and 18 years old.
A total of 39,683 individuals died over the follow-up period, which ranged from 1 to 40 years.
The researchers found that those exposed to parental death had a 50% greater risk of mortality during the study period than those unexposed to parental death.
This increased risk of mortality persisted into early adulthood irrespective of child age at parental death.
And there was a greater risk of mortality among children whose parent died from unnatural causes compared with natural causes (84% versus 33%), and was greatest for children who lost a parent due to suicide.
Researchers say the findings are unlikely to be the result of a lack of material or healthcare needs because the study was done in high income countries.
The increased mortality likely reflects both genetic susceptibility and the long-term impact of parental death on health and social well-being.
There could also be an impact on the immune system and there could also be a change in risk behaviour by those whose parents had died.
The authors say: “[These] findings warrant the need for health and social support to the bereaved children and such support may need to cover an extended time period.”
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