A new study from the British Medical Journal found that the death of a close family member in early childhood increased a person’s riskof psychotic disorders later in life. Researchers examined a cohort of more than 1 million births between 1973 and 1985 in Sweden to see if prenatal exposure to extreme maternal grief or postnatal bereavement could contribute to psychosis. The group was studied through 2006, when they were between the ages of 21 and 33.
Those exposed to severe maternal bereavement in utero had no excess risk of psychosis. However, exposure to the death of a close family member during childhood increased the risk of both affective and non-affective psychosis.
The earlier in the child’s life the death occurs, the greater the risk (eg, adjusted odds ratio for birth to 2.9 years 1.84, 1.41 to 2.41 vs adjusted odds ratio for ages seven to 12.9 years 1.32, 1.10to 1.58). In addition, if the death was by suicide, the risk—especially for affective psychosis—was greater than if thedeath was by other cause (accidents or natural causes). Researchers considered confounding variables, such as socio- economic status, parents’ age, and family history of psychiatric illness—and found that the risk remained elevated in these cases.
Few studies have looked at bereavement in children age three and younger. This study shows that those children may be most vulnerable to long-term effects from losing a parent or sibling. The researchers wrote that these results suggest that younger kids are most at-risk for abnormal brain development that may result from trauma. In addition, they point out, “the earlier in childhood [the death of an immediate family member occurs], the longer a child is likely to be exposedto disruptive social and family effects associated with...parental loss.” You can read the full study at Abel KM, BMJ 2014;348:f7679.
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