The Unexamined Life

Bereavement And The Immune System: Grief Increases Mortality Rates

Researchers conducted a review of researches surrounding bereavement. They found that those who mourned traumatic deaths have weaker immune systems and shorter lifespans. Men and women who lost their spouses were found to die shortly thereafter.

Researchers from the University of Arizona conducted a literature review on years of research surrounding bereavement and its effects on the immune system. Their findings were published in Psychosomatic Medicine after revisiting decades of research from 1977, 1987 and 1995.

They indicated that for natural causes, spouses’ risk of mortality elevated a week after their partner died. Data from another study also indicated that bereavement affects both genders and was more pronounced seven to 12 months after the death of a loved one.

Co-author Lindsay Knowles explained that the 1977 study showed people who were bereaved were prone to inflammation, faulty immune cell gene expression and reduced antibody responses to immune attacks. She added that this shows people who are mourning are at a higher risk of death that may be caused by chronic inflammation conditions. These illnesses include heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

The authors also claimed that a 1994 study also showed that mourning individuals had similar immune profiles where they were susceptible to depression and had weaker immune systems at the same time. The finding suggested that grief increased the risk of death and affected psychological health as well.

Co-author and associate professor Mary-Frances O’Connor added that their review may aid clinicians to track the health changes of bereaved patients and how they may prevent their immune system’s decline.

Generally, the review consolidated relevant research that purported to bereavement. The authors indicated that their review showed a need for further large longitudinal studies. They suggested that future researchers could establish a patient immune profile before they are bereaved to properly assess the effects of grieving on a person’s psychological and immune health.

As per the review published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, bereavement is not a disease. It, however, significantly affects a person’s overall health. The studies even showed that grieving people were more susceptible to illnesses that their conditions would require professional help. The researchers then suggested that psychological intervention programs must be a recommended treatment for people with complicated grief, bereavement-related depression and stress disorders associated with the loss of a loved one.