PARENTS who suffered the loss of their child in the first 12 months of its life are more likely to die prematurely themselves, according to a study from The University of York.

The report, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) shows bereaved mothers in particular were prone to die up to 15 years earlier than those whose children had lived beyond one year.

Dr Mairi Harper, a research fellow at the university, is now looking for funding to extend her research and discover why grieving parents are at risk from premature death.

She said: “I believe it’s the first time that this sort of work has been done in the UK. We are not sure of what the effect is here – it may be that parents who have underlying health problems have children who don’t survive. Or perhaps the grief takes its toll on their immune systems.”

According to the study, bereaved mothers in England and Wales were more than four times as likely to die in the first 15 years after losing a child.

Although the effects lessened gradually over time, they were still 1.5 times more likely to die than mothers who had not lost their child early, up to 25 years after the death.

The authors suggest that the stress of a bereavement may leave a biological legacy but may also leave grieving parents turning to potentially life-threatening dangerous ways to cope with their loss, such as heavy drinking.

Dr Harper said: “Alternatively, stillbirth and infant deaths could be more common among parents who themselves have poor health. It is imperative that cause of death be further investigated in order to establish the factors leading to increased mortality in bereaved parents.”

She said: “I now hope to get further funding to take that research forward and find out more.”