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A Prospective Study of Parentally Bereaved Youth, Caregiver Depression, and Body Mass Index

Rebecca J. Weinberg, PsyD; Laura J. Dietz, PhD; Samuel Stoyak, MD; Nadine M. Melhem, PhD; Giovanna Porta, MS; Monica W. Payne, MA; and David A. Brent, MD

Published: August 15, 2013

Article Abstract

Objective: To examine the relationship between body mass index (BMI) in bereaved youth and nonbereaved controls 5 years after a parent’s death. The study was conducted from August 9, 2002, through December 31, 2013.

Design: A prospective, longitudinal, controlled study of the effects of sudden parental death on youth.

Setting: Bereaved families were recruited through coroner records and by advertisement. Nonbereaved families were recruited using random-digit dialing and by advertisement.

Participants: 123 parentally bereaved offspring were compared with 122 nonbereaved control offspring, all of whom were aged 11-25 years at the 5-year assessment.

Main Exposure: Bereavement status, type of parental death (accident, suicide, or sudden natural death), and history of depression in caregivers prior to parental death.

Outcome Measures: BMI categories (normal, overweight, and obese), according to International Obesity Task Force guidelines for adults and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for children, and DSM-IV psychiatric disorder in offspring and caregivers before and after time of parental death.

Results: Bereaved offspring were more likely to have a BMI in the obese range compared to nonbereaved controls (χ22 = 7.13, P < .01). There were no differences in BMI category by death type among bereaved offspring. Caregiver history of depression was a significant correlate of offspring obesity in nonbereaved youth but had a protective effect on the BMI of bereaved youth.

Conclusions: Bereaved youth were more likely to be obese than nonbereaved youth 5 years after parental death, and caregiver history of depression was associated with increased risk for obesity in nonbereaved youth only. Future studies are necessary to identify mechanisms that increase risk for obesity in parentally bereaved youth.

J Clin Psychiatry 2013;74(8):834-840

Submitted: November 13, 2012; accepted April 3, 2013


Corresponding author: Laura J. Dietz, PhD, 3811 O’ Hara St, Pittsburgh, PA 15213 (

Volume: 74

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