Health In Focus
  • Early parental loss defined as loss of a biological parent before 7 years of age.
  • Children with early parental absence twice as likely to start smoking before 11 years.
  • They were 46% more likely to start drinking before 11 years.
  • Child’s sex, age at loss and which parent was missing did not matter.

Loss or absence of at least one biological parent in early childhood was associated with an increased risk among children of smoking and drinking alcohol even before they entered their teens, indicates a recent research undertaken in the United Kingdom.

Reason For The Study

Earlier studies have indicated that early loss of a parent was associated with a lower degree of physical and mental health in their adulthood, and an increased risk of taking up smoking and drinking during adolescence and later in life.
Early Parental Absence Tied To Smoking and Drinking Before Teens

However, little information is available on whether such early loss of a parent could be linked to the onset of risky health behaviors such as smoking and drinking even earlier during the pre-teens, whether such behavior was influenced by the child's sex, age at parental loss and which parent was lost.

Details of The Study

The researchers analyzed data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, which has been following the health of almost 19,000 children that were born between 2000 and 2002, in periodic surveys.

The first of these surveys was undertaken when the babies were 9 months old, with further surveys when the children were 3, 5, 7 and 11 years old.

When they were 11 years old, the children were also asked during the survey whether they had ever smoked or consumed alcohol, and if they had ever consumed enough to feel drunk.

The researchers had complete information on almost 11,000 children, of which more than 25 percent had experienced the 'loss' of a parent before the age of 7.

Absence of parent was characterized as the 'loss' of a biological parent before the child turned 7 years old.

Findings of the Study

Overall, most children reported not having smoked before the age of 11, and among those that had, boys (3.6%) were more likely to have done so in comparison to girls (1.9%)

Boys were more likely (nearly 15%) to have tried it when compared to girls (around 10%). Among the children who had consumed alcohol, around twice as many of the boys--nearly 12% reported that they had drunk enough amounts to feel drunk as compared to girls (6.6%)

Children who had experienced loss of a parent before the age of 7, were more than twice as likely to have started to smoke and 46% more likely to have started drinking alcohol by the age of 11.

These findings were seen to be present even after taking into account the factors that could play an important role, such as educational qualifications of the parent(s); mother's nativity; mother's age at parenthood; history of smoking during pregnancy; duration of pregnancy; and birthweight.

Also, the child's sex, their age of having first experienced parental absence, or which parent was absent, had no impact on the findings.

How Reasons for Parental Loss Could Impact the Results

The reasons for loss of a parent could be death or due to parental divorce, separation or other reasons.

Children who had lost a parent through death were less likely to have drunk alcohol by the age of 11. However, those that did, were 12 times more likely to get drunk than in comparison to children whose parent was absent for other reasons.

"Associations between parental absence and early smoking and alcohol consumption may operate through a range of mechanisms, such as reduced parental supervision, self-medication, and adoption of less healthy coping mechanisms," write the researchers.

"For instance, nicotine in particular demonstrates psychoactive properties and may have benefits for mood regulation."

Lessons from the Study

The findings of this mirror similar such studies in this area, underscoring the fact that health behaviors established in early life may influence such patterns in later life too.

Since this is an observational study, no concrete inferences can be made from the findings about cause and effect. Similar to all long term studies, missing data could be a potential source of bias. Also, no information was taken into on parental absence between the ages of 7 and 11, which may have influenced the study findings, the researchers say.

Source: Medindia

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