THURSDAY, Sept. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Parents, particularly
mothers, who experience a stillbirth or the death of a child in
infancy have an increased risk of death for many years afterward, a
new study suggests.
Researchers from the United Kingdom looked at census and death
registry data on parents who had a stillborn child between 1971 and
2006 or whose child died before reaching their first birthday, and
compared their rates of death to parents of children who survived
past their first year.
The study authors found that mothers and fathers in Scotland
who'd lost an infant were more than twice as likely as other
parents to die or become widowed in the first 15 years after the
In England and Wales, the research team only had access to
mortality statistics for mothers. They found mothers were more than
four times more likely to die during the 15 years after their
child's death than parents who hadn't experienced a similar
The risk of death among mothers remained elevated for up to 35
years after the child's death, according to the study published
online Sept. 8 in the journal
BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care.
The study authors, Mairi Harper of the University of York and
colleagues, speculate that the raw grief associated with the death
of a child may dampen the immune system, increasing the chances of
disease and raising the risk of death.
But other experts cautioned that the researchers did not examine
the cause of death in the parents, so there is no way of knowing if
grief contributed to the death.
The mothers of children who die before birth or shortly
afterward may already have conditions that led to ill health in
both the baby and the mother, noted Kenneth Doka, a professor of
gerontology at the College of New Rochelle Graduate School and
senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America.
"Anything compromising the health of the mother could be also compromising the health of the baby," Doka said.
Previous studies in parents who've experienced the death of an
older child have not found a strong link between that loss and a
heightened risk of death, Doka added.
And despite the findings, parents who've lost an infant or
experience a stillbirth should not read the findings to mean that
they are destined to die earlier than they might otherwise, said
Louis LaGrand, director of Loss Education Associates, in Venice,
Fla. He holds workshops on dealing with grief.
In 1970, LaGrand and his wife found their 4-month-old daughter
dead in her crib. They were devastated, he said. But eventually,
the family recovered.
"My wife and I are still together. She is in very good health," LaGrand said.
And yet, there's no question that a stillbirth or loss of a
child in infancy can be extremely painful and stressful; that in
their grief, people may be less likely to take care of themselves
by getting enough sleep, eating right and exercising; or that some
people may turn to alcohol to cope, experts said.
Though it may seem impossible, parents can, and do, move on from
the death of a baby, LaGrand said. He and his wife have four sons.
Every year on what would be their daughter's birthday, he and his
wife take a moment to remember their little girl.
"The key, I believe, is being sure that you build a wide spectrum of connections with people, places, things, ideas, information, beauty, love and spirituality -- those things are the heart, mind and soul of living," he said.
Grieving is the process of accepting what happened and what
can't be changed, he said. Reaching out to other parents who've
lost a child can help ease the sorrow.
"You will always have a relationship with the child you lost. You will always remember your loved one," LaGrand added. "But you can have that relationship and reinvest in life at the same time, to learn to love in separation."
U.S. National Library of Medicine has more on