Severe grief is tied to greater levels of inflammation in the body, and that can prove fatal, according to a new study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
“Previous research has shown that inflammation contributes to almost every disease in older adulthood,” said lead author Dr. Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Rice University in Houston.
“We also know that depression is linked to higher levels of inflammation, and those who lose a spouse are at considerably higher risk of major depression, heart attack, stroke and premature mortality.”
“However, this is the first study to confirm that grief — regardless of people’s levels of depressive symptoms — can promote inflammation, which in turn can cause negative health outcomes.”
Grief is characterized by strong negative emotions, such as deep longing, sadness, and preoccupations with thoughts, recollections, and images of the deceased. In the initial months after the loss of a spouse, those who are widowed are at risk for cardiovascular problems and premature mortality.
In the general population, depression is characterized by chronic low-grade inflammation, a key predictor of cardiovascular problems, morbidity, and mortality. Although depression and grief share similarities, they are distinct conditions.
In the new study, the researchers aimed to identify if grief was linked to inflammation among those who were experiencing the recent death of a spouse. The team sought to determine if widows and widowers who were already experiencing higher levels of depressive symptoms compared with the general population also had higher levels of inflammation compared with widows/widowers with fewer depressive symptoms.
For the study, the researchers conducted interviews and examined the blood of 99 people whose spouses had recently passed away. The team compared participants who showed symptoms of elevated grief — such as yearning for their deceased spouse, difficulty moving on, a sense that life is meaningless and inability to accept the reality of the loss — to those who did not exhibit those behaviors.
The findings show that widows and widowers with elevated grief symptoms exhibited up to 17 percent higher levels of bodily inflammation. And people in the top one-third of that group had a 53.4 percent higher level of inflammation than the bottom one-third of the group.
The study is an important revelation in the research on how human behaviors and activities impact inflammation levels in the body, Fagundes said, and it adds to a growing body of work about how bereavement can impact health.
His initial work showed why those who have been widowed are at higher risk of cardiovascular problems, bodily symptoms and premature mortality by comparing inflammation in spousally bereaved individuals to matched controls.
“This work shows who, among those who are bereaved, are at highest risk,” Fagundes said. “Now that we know these two key findings, we can design interventions to target this risk factor in those who are most at risk through behavioral or pharmacological approaches.”
This work was supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Source: Rice University