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Parental Death Ups Early Mortality Risk

Update Date: Jul 22, 2014 05:10 PM EDT

Experiencing the death of a parent during childhood or adolescence increases the risk of dying early, according to a new study.

Danish researchers found that people who lost either a mother or a father during childhood had a significantly higher risk of mortality in the years following the parent's death compared to those who did not experience parental death during childhood.

The latest study involved data from national registries from all children born in Denmark (1968 to 2008) and Sweden (1973 to 2006) and 89 percent of children born in Finland (1987 to 2006).

Researchers noted that 189,094 or 2.6 percent of children involved in the study lost a parent between six months and 18 years old, and a total of 39,683 individuals died over the follow-up period, which ranged from one to 40 years.

The findings revealed that people exposed to parental death were 50 percent more likely to die than those who did not.

Researchers said that this 50 percent higher risk of mortality lasted into early adulthood, and the age at parental death did not affect individuals' mortality risk.

The findings also revealed that the children whose parents died from unnatural causes had a greater mortality risk than those who died from natural causes. Researchers noted that the risk of mortality was the greatest among those whose parents committed suicide.

Genetic susceptibility and the long-term impacts of parental death on health and social wellbeing could explain the increased risk of child mortality, according to researchers.

"Parental death in childhood was associated with a long-lasting increased mortality risk from both external causes and diseases, regardless of child's age at bereavement, sex of the child, sex of the deceased parent, cause of parental death, as well as population characteristics like socioeconomic background," researchers wrote in the study.

"[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," they concluded.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS Medicine.

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