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Research points to early death risk for bereaved parents

Posted on 8 September 2011

Parents who lose their child during the first 12 months after birth are at significantly increased risk of an early death, and the effect can last for up to 25 years, according to new research led by a University of York academic.

The research led by Dr Mairi Harper, of the University’s Social Policy Research Unit, is published online today in BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care.

It is imperative that cause of death be further investigated in order to establish the factors leading to increased mortality in bereaved parents

Dr Mairi Harper

The research team, which included academics from Stirling University, looked at a random five per cent sample of UK death registrations among parents whose child had survived beyond the first year of life and those whose child had died before reaching a first birthday for the period 1971 to 2006. They included parents whose children had been still born.

The results showed that parents in Scotland were more than twice as likely to die or become widowed in the first 15 years after the loss of a child in the first year as those who had not been bereaved in this way.

Bereaved mothers were especially prone to an early death, the figures showed.

Bereaved mothers in England and Wales were more than four times as likely to die in the first 15 years after losing a child. Although the effects lessened gradually over time, they were still 1.5 times more likely to die than mothers who had not lost their child early up to 25 years after the death.

Dr Harper says that when people who lose their spouse/partner often die earlier than expected, it is commonly referred to as “dying of a broken heart”. Now it seems that this applies just as much to losing a child in infancy, she adds.

The researchers point out that they did not have sufficient data to rule out suicide, but suggest that the stress of a bereavement may leave a biological legacy, such as dampening down the immune system.

“Bereaved parents may also be more likely to use maladaptive coping strategies, such as alcohol misuse,” which may in turn boost the likelihood of alcohol related illnesses or unintentional injuries, she says. Alternatively, stillbirth and infant deaths could be more common among parents who themselves have poor health, the research suggests.

“It is imperative that cause of death be further investigated in order to establish the factors leading to increased mortality in bereaved parents,” Dr Harper says.

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