The long arm of childhood bereavement : parental death and pathways to adult health and educational inequalities.
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Wilkinson, Renae Michelle, 1989-
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The death of a parent is generally considered to be among the most devastating kinds of losses that children can experience. While research has examined the associations between childhood parental death and health and educational attainment, the pathways and mechanisms that explain these relationships are not well-understood. This dissertation investigates following questions: Does childhood parental death matter for young adult health and educational attainment? If it does, what mechanisms and pathways account for its lasting effects across the transition to adulthood? Across three empirical studies, I argue that parental death is a distinct form of childhood misfortune that sets in motion chains of risk leading to disparities in health and educational attainment among young adults. This dissertation uses data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) to examine the impact of childhood parental death on young adult outcomes by considering the mechanisms and pathways that undermine health and inhibit attainment across the transition to adulthood. The first chapter focuses on the patterns in mental health and health-risk behavior across the transition to adulthood following parental death. Growth curve models show that parental death is a significant source of variation in the trajectories of depressive symptoms and body mass of young people from ages 12-32, and these associations are shown to vary by race and gender. The second chapter examines links between parental death and young adult cardiovascular health and whether this relationship is explained by subsequent childhood misfortune and adult status attainment. This study uses a comprehensive measure of cardiovascular health that includes metabolic biomarker data to show that childhood parental death is associated with young adult cardiovascular health risk and this relationship is partly explained by adult attainment. The third chapter shifts attention to the association between parental death and education and investigates the extent to which high school academic performance and behavior account for lowered attainment among bereaved young people. Findings from this study indicate that parental death is associated with lowered odds of college degree attainment and an increased risk of incomplete postsecondary education pathways.