Reuters Health

Early parental loss a risk factor for adult psychiatric illness

Moday, February 22, 1999

WESTPORT, Feb 22 (Reuters Health) - Children who lose a parent early in life, either by death or permanent separation, appear more likely than others to develop schizophrenia, depression or bipolar disorder as adults.

The finding comes from a large Israeli case-control study involving nearly 80 patients each with major depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia and an equal number of healthy controls.

Study director, Dr. B. Lerer of Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem, Israel, and a multicenter team found that the rates of parental loss during childhood were significantly higher among patients with psychiatric disorders in this population than in controls.

Specifically, loss of a parent during childhood significantly increased the risk of major depression in adulthood by 3.8-fold, according to a report in the February 13th issue of Molecular Psychiatry. Parental loss during childhood was 2.6 times more likely in participants with bipolar disorder and 3.8 times more likely in those with schizophrenia compared with controls.

The effect of parental loss on the development of psychiatric disorders was more striking if the loss was due to permanent separation rather than death, and if the loss occurred before the age of 9 years. And, "[a]lthough not significant in this analysis, loss of mother had a stronger effect than loss of father in patients with [major depression], as did loss of both parents," Dr. Lerer and others note.

Early parental loss also significantly increased the risks of smoking, physical illness, divorce, lower income and living alone in later life.

The findings add early parental loss to the list of known environmental factors that increase susceptibility to major depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In fact, the Israeli team speculates that early parental loss may be a nonspecific risk factor for psychiatric illness in adulthood, with a degree of specificity for major depression and schizophrenia. One possible explanation for this association, they propose, is that early parental loss negatively effects responsiveness to stress in adulthood.

In a related editorial, Dr. C. B. Nemeroff, of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, comments that the findings add to accumulating evidence that "...untoward life events early in life... appear to increase vulnerability to several major psychiatric disorders including affective and anxiety disorders."

Such "untoward events" include both parental loss and child abuse and neglect, he notes. "Perhaps these data will lend support for the call for a national study of the prevalence rate of child abuse and neglect," Dr. Nemeroff hopes. He adds, "We owe it to our patients, our children and ourselves."

Copyright (c) 1999 Reuters