Child death ‘more common’ than many realize, hits black Americans disproportionately
The connections we form with our family and friends benefit our mental health, physical health and longevity in countless ways.
So, it’s no surprise that the loss of those close relationships, particularly through death, can be devastating. In fact, research identifies the death of a significant other as one of the most stressful life events a person can experience and one with lasting effects on health. When the loved one who dies is a child, it has especially powerful consequences.
Relationships with children affect the health and well-being of parents, who expect to precede their children in death, throughout their lives. When children are dependent on parents, parents feel a sense of responsibility to keep their kids safe.
As parents age, adult children often play a role in caring for their parent’s health and well-being, so a child’s death may mean the loss of the person who supports them as they grow older.
Child death: More common than you think
For parents, especially, the death of a child is a traumatic life event, and it’s more common than most Americans realize. Here at the University of Texas-Austin’s Population Research Center, our research shows that by the age of 50 about eight percent of Americans have a child who has died. And it’s even more common for older parents. By age 80, almost one in five parents has lost a child.
And when we look further into our research, we find that black Americans, in particular, are even more likely to experience the death of a child. Throughout their lives, black Americans lose more family members than white Americans. By age 60, black parents are twice as likely as white parents to have lost a child. And by age 70, they are about three and a half times more likely to have a child die.
Although black Americans lose more family members than white Americans throughout their lives, surprisingly little information is available about the long-term health consequences of race differences after a family member has died.
Documenting the consequences
Through our research, the primary goal is to document the extensive health consequences after a child’s death. We use several datasets to examine the outcomes for younger and older parents when a child dies and find that the death of a child is associated with numerous health risks for parents over the years.
Losing a child, for example, puts parents at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, physical disability, dementia and death. The loss of a child also increases risk factors that undermine health, including risky health behaviors, such as smoking, and poor mental health, such as depression.
Although black and white parents are similarly affected by the death of a child, racial inequality and disadvantage is striking for black parents for two primary reasons. Black parents are substantially more likely than white parents to lose a child during their lifetime. And, when compared to white parents, they are more likely to face inadequate access to health providers and other resources and poor health outcomes even before the loss of a child. The death of a child adds to their already higher risk of poor health.
More work to do
Research clearly shows that the loss of a child marks a turning point in a person’s life, one that could launch them toward a cascade of health problems. But there are ways to help them early on in their grief. Our findings underscore the importance of identifying parents who have lost a child and building early intervention strategies to reduce long-term consequences for parents.