Early risk of death found for people who suffered bereavement in childhood

Fiona Keating

The death of a sibling in childhood is associated with dying earlier according to researchers.

Danish scientists surveyed 56,000 people who had experienced the death of a sister or brother before the age of 18. According to the study, the risk of dying over the next 37 years was 71% higher than for those who had not suffered a sibling bereavement during childhood.

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"The public should be aware of children's vulnerability after experiencing sibling loss, especially in the first year and for siblings of same sex or close age," Dr Yongfu Yu from Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark told Reuters Health.

"Tailored social support may help to reduce the level of grief and minimise potential adverse health effects on the bereaved individuals."

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There was a particularly increased risk of death from the same cause as their deceased sibling. Even more worringly, there was also a greater risk of suicide, the research team stated in a JAMA Paediatrics report.

Grieving male participants had a higher mortality risk than bereaved female participants, regardless of whether the deceased sibling was a male or female.

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Bereavement caused by the death of a close relative was ranked in the study as one of the most severe life events. Sibling relationships, amongst the most intimate in families, can have a devastating effect as they represent a significant influence on social and emotional development.

"More death events could reflect genetic susceptibility, direct impacts on bereaved children by psychological stress . . . and indirect impacts through parents' and other family members' reactions such as behavioural changes," Yu said.

"Further research on social environment and family characteristics might help identify the most vulnerable subgroups of bereaved children, as well as other family members.

"The underlying pathways that link this life event and the increased mortality risk needs to be further investigated."

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