MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Dr Rebecca Lacey, PhD
Epidemiology & Public Health
Institute of Epidemiology & Health
Faculty of Pop Health Sciences
University College London
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?
Response: We know from previous research that children who experience parental absence, whether due to death, divorce or some other reason, are more likely, on average, to have poorer health in later life. This includes being more likely to smoke and drink as an adult. However, what we didn’t know before we conducted our study was whether children who experienced parental absence were more likely to engage in the early uptake of risky health behaviours in childhood. This is what we looked at in our study.
MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?
Response: We studied 11,000 children from the Millennium Cohort Study which is a large, UK-representative study of children who were born between 2000-2002. We found that children who experienced parental absence in early childhood (before age 7) were much more likely to have smoked and to have tried alcohol before they were 11 years old. The most common cause of parental absence in our study was parental separation or divorce. We found that the children who had experienced the death of a parent were less likely to have tried alcohol, but those who had were more likely to have been drunk.
We found that the age of the child when parental loss occurred, the child’s sex, and which parent was absent didn’t make a difference to our findings.
However, as this is an observational study we need to be cautious in the interpretation of our results. This means that we cannot be sure that parental absence causes children to smoke and drink before they are teenagers.
MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?
Response: Our study provides further evidence that parental loss may have negative consequences for health. In particular, our study suggests that children who experience parental loss may be more likely to engage in risky health behaviours which could have long-term consequences for their health in later life.
Our study potentially highlights the need to support children and families who are having a tough time, whether that’s due to the death of a parent, a parent being in prison, or divorce.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?
Response: If this is indeed a true association then we need to look into the possible reasons why children who experienced parental absence are more likely to smoke and drink. What are the mechanisms? Then we can begin to plan effective support strategies to help prevent children from engaging in risky health behaviours.
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