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Death of an Adult Son Tied to an Increase in Depressive Symptoms in Mothers Only

Update Date: Dec 04, 2013 03:21 PM EST

In one of the first studies to examine the effects of losing a child, researchers are reporting that losing an adult son affects the number of depressive symptoms experienced by mothers, but not fathers over the age of 65. The researchers also found that the death of an adult daughter did not yield the same response in mothers or fathers.

For this study, the researchers from the Office of Population Research in Princeton's University's Woodrow Wilson School examined data on Taiwanese participants. The researchers noted that in East Asian cultures, males tend to be more highly valued than females due to the fact that they are seen as the financial backbone of the family. The researchers analyzed the information provided by the Taiwanese Longitudinal Study of Aging, which surveyed a nationally representative group of about 4,200 older people living in Taiwan from 1996 to 2007.

"In East Asian cultures like Taiwan, sons hold the primary responsibility for providing financial and instrumental assistance to their elderly parents," said lead author Chioun Lee, a Princeton postdoctoral research associate reported by Medical Xpress. "Older women who have had particularly few educational and occupational opportunities are more likely to rely on their sons for support. Therefore, a traumatic event, like a son's death, could place quite a strain on a mother's health."

In order to measure the adults' wellbeing, the researchers used two self-reported measures. The first one assessed overall health, which used a five-point scale and the other one focused on depressive symptoms, using an eight-item subset of the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale. The main question that the researchers based their overall health measurements on was, "Regarding your current state of health, do you feel it is excellent, good, average, not so good, or poor?" For depression, the team asked the participants about the frequency of depressive symptoms.

When the researchers focused on analyzing data after the participants have lost an adult child, they found that mothers experienced an increase in depressive symptoms if they lost an adult son. Their depressive symptoms measured in at 2.4 points higher than women who did not lose a son. For men, the researchers did not find any differences in depressive symptoms. The researchers also reported that the lost of an adult daughter did not increase depressive symptoms in either parent.

"I also think that various attributes of deceased children, such as birth order, affective bonds with their parents or cause of death, might influence parental wellbeing," said Lee.

Study Co-author Noreen Goldman, Hughes-Rogers Professor of Demography and Public Affairs at Woodrow Wilson School, added, "Despite large advances in women's labor market participation and educational attainment in recent years - for example, women in Taiwan are now more likely than men to hold a higher education degree - son preference persists, affecting various aspects of women's well-being."

The study was published in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

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