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Losing a parent can be fatal
23 March 2011
The death of parents entails an increase in their children’s risk of dying. This is shown in a new study performed by Mikael Rostila, a researcher at the Center for Health Equity Studies (CHESS) in Sweden, and Jan Saarela, a researcher at Åbo Akademi University in Finland. Those especially affected are younger children, and primarily if they lose their mother.
“Among children between 10 and 18 years of age, there’s an increased risk of death. Compared with children who have not lost their mother at these ages, their risk of dying is nearly doubled. But even children up to the ages of 40–50 are affected by their mother’s death, but in that case primarily over a longer term,” says Mikael Rostila. In other words, our parents are very important to us throughout our lives.
“The fact that it’s primarily the loss of a mother that impacts children can be explained in different ways. It may be so that the relation between mother and child is characterized by a stronger emotional contact, entailing that the child is affected more by the loss. Other studies have shown that mothers transfer material and economic resources to their children to a greater extent than fathers do, which may have a positive effect on their health,” says Mikael Rostila.
Somewhat surprisingly the findings of the study indicate that older children who lose a parent evince lower mortality than children whose parents are living.
“This may be because the parents’ final stage of life brings with it a great deal of anxiety and caring and many elderly parents are in ill health for an extended period. Paradoxically, their death can be a relief to the child in that the parent no longer has to suffer,” says Mikael Rostila.
The study also shows that death by accident or suicide, for example, has the greatest consequences for the health of children.
“This is rather to be expected in that the unexpected loss of a parent means that we find it more difficult to accept the loss. We have no time to prepare ourselves for the event. This entails a greater risk of winding up in a crisis or depression,” says Mikael Rostila.
“The study’s findings have important consequences for health care, as we have little knowledge of how death and illness in an individual impact the health of loved ones. In caring for an individual in the final stages of life, physicians and other health care staff should pay more attention to the perceptions and reactions of loved ones. It may also be important for health care to follow up individuals who are mourning the death of a loved one. This can reduce suffering, illness, and death among loved ones,” says Mikael Rostila.
The study is based on a registry database from CHESS where it is possible to link together parents and children and thereby follow children up to 10 years after the loss of a mother or father.