How does bereavement affect the immune system?


The loss of a loved one, of course, is incredibly traumatic; it can also shorten lifespan. A recent article reviews ten years of research into bereavement and its effects on the immune system.
For years, both researchers and non-professionals have noted that when someone loses a partner, their risk of mortality increases significantly.

In the past days, we could call it death from a broken heart.

This phenomenon has been investigated for decades.

For example, researchers using data from the Finnish population published their findings in 1987. They found that "for all natural causes, the death rate during the first week [after the death of a spouse] was more than double compared with the expected rates."

Another study published in 1995 concluded that after the death of one of the spouses, the death rate "increased significantly in both men and women." This increase was most pronounced at 7–12 months after bereavement.

Although scientists have gathered enough evidence to demonstrate this effect, there is less information about the biological mechanism that drives it.
Bereavement and immune system

Now in the literature review, an attempt was made to link previous results to create a clearer picture of this phenomenon. In particular, the authors were interested in how bereavement and grief can adversely affect the immune system, thereby increasing the risk of mortality.

Authors from the University of Arizona in Tucson recently published their article in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

Researchers conducted a systematic review of published studies from 1977 to the present. A total of 33 studies were consistent with the assessment to be considered for analysis, and scientists focused on 13, which were of the highest quality.

Answering the question why they conducted the study, one of the authors, Lindsay Knowles, explained that “There is strong evidence that severe loss of a spouse increases morbidity and the risk of early mortality among widows and widowers, but we still have to figure out how to lose stress. affects health. "
In the late 1970s, scientists began to study the role of the immune system in increasing the risk of mortality after bereavement.

An article published in The Lancet in 1977, states that she was the first to measure impaired immune function after a severe loss.
New evidence review

Knowles explains that she wanted to create a document that includes "all published data on the relationship between bereavement and immune function — to create a knowledge base and suggest specific directions for future research."

The paper outlines the main results of research that have been conducted to date.

In particular, they identify that people suffering from grief have an increased level of inflammation, gene expression of immune cells is disrupted, and antibody responses to immune problems are reduced.

All of these changes are significant when you try to understand why people who have lost children have a higher risk of death; for example, scientists already know that chronic inflammation plays a certain role in a number of conditions, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

The authors also conclude that there is a link between the psychological effects of bereavement, such as grief and depression, and how bereavement affects immune function.

For example, a study published in 1994 showed that, in general, people who suffered a loss did not have significant differences in their immune profiles. However, those who also met the diagnostic criteria for depression had impaired immune function.

This type of research is important; there is still a mysterious look around this topic, so any new understanding is vital. Scientists know that grief increases the risk of earlier death, so understanding what is happening on a physiological basis can help determine how doctors treat these people in the future.

Another author, Associate Professor Mary-Francis O'Connor, explains how "someday clinicians will be able to track changes in patient immunity and prevent medical complications after this difficult experience."

Responding to a question about the contribution that this document provides in the field, O'Connor says:

“This systematic review gives researchers a resource to read all these studies in one place from a modern point of view on how the area has changed, and a visual model that will help move the field forward in a more organized way.”

Although this line of research has a long history, scientists still have to fill in the gaps that need to be filled with new research.

As the authors explain, there is a great need for large longitudinal studies; for example, if researchers could evaluate a person’s immune profile before a loss occurs.

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