The mother's risk of premature death after child loss across two centuries

Elife. 2019 Nov 12:8:e43476. doi: 10.7554/eLife.43476.


While the rare occurrence of child loss is accompanied by reduced life expectancy of parents in contemporary affluent populations, its impact in developing societies with high child mortality rates is unclear. We identified all parents in Iceland born 1800-1996 and compared the mortality rates of 47,711 parents who lost a child to those of their siblings (N = 126,342) who did not. The proportion of parents who experienced child loss decreased from 61.1% of those born 1800-1880 to 5.2% of those born after 1930. Child loss was consistently associated with increased rate of maternal, but not paternal, death before the age of 50 across all parent birth cohorts; the relative increase in maternal mortality rate ranged from 35% among mothers born 1800-1930 to 64% among mothers born after 1930. The loss of a child poses a threat to the survival of young mothers, even during periods of high infant mortality rates.

Keywords: attachment; child loss; demography; epidemiology; global health; human; mortality; psychological stress; sex difference.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Female
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Iceland / epidemiology
  • Infant
  • Infant Mortality / history*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Mortality, Premature / history*
  • Mothers*
  • Parents