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Does death of a sibling in childhood increase risk of death in surviving children?

The JAMA Network Journals

Bereavement in childhood due to the death of a sibling was associated with an increased risk for death in both the short and long term, according to a new article published by JAMA Pediatrics.

Nearly 8 percent of individuals in the United States are estimated to have experienced a sibling dying in childhood.

Yongfu Yu, Ph.D., of Aarhus University Hospital, Denmark, and coauthors conducted a population-based study that included more than 5 million Danish and Swedish children who survived the first six months of life. Death of a sibling was experienced by 55,818 (1.1 percent) in childhood (from six months after birth until 18) and the median age was 7 at sibling loss. During a follow-up of 37 years, 534 individuals in this bereaved group died.

Compared with those who did not experience the death of a sibling, the bereaved group had a 71 percent increased risk of death from all causes. The increased risk of death after a sibling's death was seen across the follow-up but higher risks of death were found in the first year after a sibling's death, as well as among same-sex sibling pairs or siblings with a small age difference, according to the results.

Limitations of the study include a lack of data on social environment and family characteristics which might help explain underlying reasons that link sibling death and increased risk of death for the bereaved sibling. Other factors may also exert influence over the associations researchers have detailed.

"Health care professionals should be aware of children's vulnerability after experiencing sibling death, especially for same-sex sibling pairs and sibling pairs with close age. Social support may help to reduce the level of grief and minimize potential adverse health effects on the bereaved individuals," the article concludes.

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For more details and to read the full study, please visit the For The Media website.

(JAMA Pediatr. Published online April 24, 2017. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.0197; available pre-embargo at the For The Media website.)

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