Study finds mother's risk of death skyrockets after death of child

POSTED: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 - 9:00am

UPDATED: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 - 9:02am

Having a child die is one of the most devastating things that can happen to any parent.

There are many studies indicated that parents who lost a child have a high risk of being hospitalized for emotional problems.

But a first of its kind study involving the University of Notre Dame and the Rochester Institute of Technology shows that in the first two years following the death of a child there is a 300% increase in the risk of the mother dying.

Notre Dame economist Dr. William Evans and colleague Janier Espinosa of the Rochester Institute of Technology studied 69,224 mothers aged 20 to 50 years old for nine years, using national U.S. data as their source.

Dr. Evans said what they found was a heightened mortality of mothers.

"We found fairly large increases in mortality, much larger than say, you would for the death of a spouse," he said. "So it's a relatively traumatic event in terms of the affect of the health of the mother."

They also found that the age of the child did not matter.

They found the same results with deaths of children from infancy to adulthood.

The immediate years after a child dies are critical, said Dr. Evans.

"The mortality increases by about 300% in the first two years in the death of a child," he said. "Mortality rates are still low because these are fairly young women and so the increase in mortality is large in percentage terms."

But is it grief alone that is leading to the deaths of these mothers?

That is not clear, said Dr. Evans.

"That's the thing we don't know. We have some information on the type of death," he said. "The problem is that these are pretty infrequent events. It looks like they are the same things that they would typically die of: heart attacks or accidents. But there wasn't enough evidence to look at whether there was increased suicide or something like that."

It also did not seem to matter whether mom had one child or many.

Nor did the household income or education level figure into the equation.

"There seems to be very little difference in the affect on the death of the mom," Dr. Evans said.

So what can we do with this information?

According to Dr. Evans, we learn.

"One thing is, there does appear to be a critical period in the couple years after the death of a child where you really need to focus on the health of the mom," he says.

Evans added that stress can have negative impact on the body.

Time may not heal all wounds, but Dr. Evans says helping moms get past that critical two year period is important.

He says that 300% risk of death drops to 133% overall.

So is the mother and child bond stronger than others?

Dr. Evans said that remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain, "I don't know that people were understanding how important moms are, but I think what's clear is how important kids are to moms."

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