Grief Can Kill The Brokenhearted, Study Finds

by NCN Health And Science Team Posted on October 29th, 2018

Houston, Texas, USA : “Grief is itself a medicine”, said William Cowper, a popular English poet. But for some, it can prove fatal. Grief can cause inflammation that can kill, according to new research from Rice University.

There have been several reports of elderly couples dying within hours/days of each other. Science has an explanation for this phenomenon, dubbed broken heart syndrome.

Severe grief can promote bodily inflammation which in turn can cause negative health outcomes including death, according to a study conducted by Rice University researchers.

The study, “Grief, Depressive Symptoms and Inflammation in the Spousally Bereaved,” will appear in an upcoming edition of Psychoneuroendocrinology. It examines the impact grief has on human health. It builds on previous research from the lab of Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Rice University and the study’s lead author, who studied risk factors for inflammation.

Rice researchers conducted interviews and examined the blood of 99 people who spouses had recently died. They compared people who showed symptoms of elevated grief—such as pining for the deceased, 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 researchers discovered that widows and widowers with elevated grief symptoms suffered 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 who did exhibit those symptoms.

“Previous research has shown that inflammation contributes to almost every disease in older adulthood,” Fagundes said. “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.”

This finding is an important revelation in the study of 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 affect 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.”

The study was co-authored by Rice psychological sciences graduate students Ryan Brown and Michelle Chen; Kyle Murdock, an assistant professor of biobehavioral health at Pennsylvania State University and a former postdoctoral research fellow in the Fagundes laboratory at Rice; Levi Saucedo, a research assistant at Rice; Angie LeRoy, a postdoctoral research fellow at Rice; Lydia Wu, a fellow in psychological sciences at Rice; Luz Garcini, a postdoctoral research fellow at Rice; Anoushka Shahane, a Ph.D. student at Rice; Faiza Baameur, a postdoctoral fellow of pharmacology at Vanderbilt University; and Cobi Heijnen, a researcher at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

This work was supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. To obtain a copy of the study, contact David Ruth, director of national media relations at Rice, at 713-348-6327 or david@rice.edu.

Citation : Christopher Fagundes et al, Grief, Depressive Symptoms, and Inflammation in the Spousally Bereaved, Psychoneuroendocrinology. DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.10.006

An earlier Rice University study found that risk factors developed after loss of spouse could increase likelihood of ‘dying of a broken heart’

Risk factors developed after loss of spouse could increase likelihood of ‘dying of a broken heart’

Widowed individuals are more likely to exhibit risk factors linked to cardiovascular illness and death in the three-month period following a spouse’s death, according to a new study from Rice University. This could make a bereaved spouse more likely to “die of a broken heart,” the researchers said.

“Spousal Bereavement Is Associated With More-pronounced ex Vivo Cytokine Production and Lower Heart Rate Variability: Mechanisms Underlying Cardiovascular Risk” will appear in an upcoming edition of Psychoneuroendocrinology.

The study found that individuals who have lost a spouse within the last three months have higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines (immune markers that indicate inflammation in the bloodstream) and lower heart rate variability (HRV) compared with non-bereaved individuals who share the sex, age, body mass index, and educational level. Both are factors that increase an individual’s risk for cardiac events, including death. The study is the first to demonstrate that bereavement is associated with elevated levels of ex vivo cytokines and lower HRV.

“In the first six months after the loss of a spouse, widows/widowers are at a 41 percent increased risk of mortality,” said Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychology in Rice’s School of Social Sciences and the study’s lead author. “Importantly, 53 percent of this increased risk is due to cardiovascular disease. This study is an important step toward understanding why this is the case by identifying how bereavement gets under the skin to promote morbidity and mortality.”

The 32 recently bereaved individuals who participated in the study exhibited 47 percent lower levels of HRV than the 33 people in the control group. The bereaved individuals exhibited 7 percent higher levels of TNF-alpha (one type of cytokine) and 5 percent higher levels of IL-6 (another type of cytokine) than the control group. Finally, the bereaved spouses reported 20 percent higher levels of depressive symptoms than the control group. Participants ranged in age from 51 to 80 (average 67.87) and included 22 percent men and 78 percent women. The sex and age of the control group was comparable, and the results were the same when accounting for slight differences in weight and health behaviors.

Fagundes said the study adds to a growing understanding of how bereavement can impact heart health. He hopes the research will help medical professionals better understand the biological mechanisms triggered by bereavement and allow for the creation of targeted psychological and/or pharmacological interventions to reduce or prevent the toll of a “broken heart.”

“Although not every bereaved individual is at the same risk for cardiac events, it is important to point out that the risk exists,” Fagundes said. “In our future work, we seek to identify which widows/widowers are at greatest risk, and which are resilient to the negative physiological consequences of bereavement.”

Citation for second study: Christopher P. Fagundes et al. Spousal bereavement is associated with more pronounced ex vivo cytokine production and lower heart rate variability: Mechanisms underlying cardiovascular risk?, Psychoneuroendocrinology. DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.04.010

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