The sudden loss of a loved one can trigger a variety of psychiatric disorders in people with no history of mental illness, according to a new study.

According to the study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia’s School of Social Work, and Harvard Medical School, the unexpected death of a loved one roughly doubled the risk for new-onset mania in people 30 and older.

That’s after controlling for other factors, such as prior psychiatric diagnoses, other traumatic experiences, and certain demographic variables like sex, race, income, education, and marital status, researchers note.

For people between the ages of 50 and 70, the risk increased more than fivefold, according to the researchers.

The study found there was no significant effect in people younger than 30.

Losing a loved one unexpectedly also raised the risk of major depression, excessive use of alcohol, and anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and phobias, according to the study’s findings.

The largest risk increases were for PTSD, which was seen across age groups with an increased risk as high as 30-fold, according to the researchers. Most other disorders were concentrated in the older age groups, they add.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from 27,534 participants in the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Between approximately 20 percent and 30 percent of the participants identified the unexpected death of a loved one as the most traumatic event in their lives.

This was still the case for those reporting 11 or more lifetime traumatic events, where losing a loved one unexpectedly was most traumatic for 22 percent, the researchers report.

While developing a psychiatric disorder for the first time in old age is relatively rare, the study’s finding indicate that the onset of a psychiatric disorder in older people is often associated with the death of a loved one, according to the researchers.

“Clinically, our results highlight the importance of considering a possible role for loss of close personal relationships through death in assessment of psychiatric disorders,” said Katherine Keyes, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, and principal investigator.

“When someone loses a close personal relationship, even late in life, there is a profound effect on sense of self and self-reflection. These data indicate that, even in adults with no history of psychiatric disorders, it is also a vulnerable risk period for the onset of a potentially disabling psychiatric disorder.”

The study’s findings should alert health care professionals about the possible onset of a wide range of psychiatric disorders after an unexpected death in otherwise healthy individuals, noted Keyes.

“However, it is also notable that the majority of individuals in the present study did not develop mental health issues in the wake of an unexpected death of a loved one,” she concluded.

The study was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Source: Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health

Woman at gravesite photo by shutterstock.