Stress of losing a child increases risk of MS

03/01/04

ST. PAUL, Minn. Parents who lose a child have an increased risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS), according to a study published in the March 9 issue of Neurology, the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

The study found that parents whose child died were 50 percent more likely to develop MS than parents who did not lose a child.

The results show that psychological stress may play a role in the development of MS. Researchers have believed that stress plays a role in MS, but this is the first study to examine a large group of people beginning before they developed MS and follow them for several years.

"We hypothesized that, if stress causes MS, only severe stresses are likely candidates, because MS is a rare disease," said study author Jiong Li, MD, MSc, of the University of Aarhus in Aarhus, Denmark. "The death of a child is one of the most serious stressors that occurs in a society with low infant mortality, so it serves as an objective indicator that can be studied."

The study found that the risk of developing MS was even greater for parents whose child died unexpectedly. They were more than twice as likely to develop MS as parents who did not lose a child.

"This is more evidence that stress plays a role in the disease, because losing a child unexpectedly is considered to be even more stressful for parents," Li said.

Li said the results could help researchers determine what processes in the body are affected by stress that could lead to MS. "This could help us better understand the disease process and, in the future, develop preventative treatments," he said.

The researchers used Danish national registers for the study. They identified all children under age 18 who died over a 16-year period and their parents. Then they identified 15 times as many parents who did not lose a child, randomly selected from the general population and with the same number of children in the family and of the same ages as the families that lost a child. There were 21,062 parents who lost a child and 293,745 parents who did not lose a child. People who had MS or suspected MS at the start of the study were not included.

The parents were followed for an average of 9.5 years. Over that time, 28 of the parents who had lost a child developed MS and 230 of the other parents developed MS. The risk of developing MS was the same regardless of the age or sex of the child who died. The risk was also the same regardless of the age or sex of the parent.

MS is a neurological disorder that affects young adults. The average age of diagnosis is 30. The cause is not known, but researchers believe that both a genetic susceptibility and environmental factors play a role.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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