Mortality after parental death in childhood: a nationwide cohort study from three Nordic countries

PLoS Med. 2014 Jul 22;11(7):e1001679. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001679. eCollection 2014 Jul.

Abstract

Background: Bereavement by spousal death and child death in adulthood has been shown to lead to an increased risk of mortality. Maternal death in infancy or parental death in early childhood may have an impact on mortality but evidence has been limited to short-term or selected causes of death. Little is known about long-term or cause-specific mortality after parental death in childhood.

Methods and findings: This cohort study included all persons born in Denmark from 1968 to 2008 (n = 2,789,807) and in Sweden from 1973 to 2006 (n = 3,380,301), and a random sample of 89.3% of all born in Finland from 1987 to 2007 (n = 1,131,905). A total of 189,094 persons were included in the exposed cohort when they lost a parent before 18 years old. Log-linear Poisson regression was used to estimate mortality rate ratio (MRR). Parental death was associated with a 50% increased all-cause mortality (MRR = 1.50, 95% CI 1.43-1.58). The risks were increased for most specific cause groups and the highest MRRs were observed when the cause of child death and the cause of parental death were in the same category. Parental unnatural death was associated with a higher mortality risk (MRR = 1.84, 95% CI 1.71-2.00) than parental natural death (MRR = 1.33, 95% CI 1.24-1.41). The magnitude of the associations varied according to type of death and age at bereavement over different follow-up periods. The main limitation of the study is the lack of data on post-bereavement information on the quality of the parent-child relationship, lifestyles, and common physical environment.

Conclusions: Parental death in childhood or adolescence is associated with increased all-cause mortality into early adulthood. Since an increased mortality reflects both genetic susceptibility and long-term impacts of parental death on health and social well-being, our findings have implications in clinical responses and public health strategies. Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Bereavement
  • Cause of Death
  • Child
  • Child Mortality*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cohort Studies
  • Denmark / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Finland / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Mortality*
  • Life Change Events*
  • Male
  • Parental Death / statistics & numerical data*
  • Risk Factors
  • Sweden / epidemiology
  • Time Factors