The grief of losing a life partner can literally kill you. A new study found that people who showed elevated symptoms of grief following their spouse’s death were at risk of inflammation, predisposing them to a heart attack, stroke, and a premature death.
Researchers at Rice University examined the blood of 99 people whose spouses had recently passed away. They then divided the participants into two groups: those that showed symptoms of elevated grief — not being able to move on, a sense that life is meaningless, inability to accept the reality of loss — and those who didn’t.
The bodily inflammation that widows and widowers in the second group experienced was 17% higher, the authors reported in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. Some suffered heavily from their loss, as the researchers found the inflammation levels of people in the top one-third of the elevated grief group was 53.4% higher than the bottom one-third.
“Previous research has shown that inflammation contributes to almost every disease in older adulthood,” Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Rice University, said in a statement.
“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.”
Anecdotally-speaking, most people probably know of some older couple in which, after one of them dies, the spouse ends up dying shortly after, despite having been in relatively good health. There’s actually a lot of science that explains why this happens so often.
A 2014 study published in Ageing and Immunity studied two small groups of mourners, one with an average age of 32 and the other with an average age of 72, and similarly-aged control groups of people who had not recently experienced a loss. It found that elderly widows and widowers had reduced function in their neutrophils — a white blood cell used to fight off infections — compared to the non-bereaved peers, making them more vulnerable to potentially fatal infections. Grief has also been found to aggravate physical pain, increase blood pressure and blood clots, and exacerbate appetite loss, perhaps because grief is known to make people find less pleasure in food.
These new findings suggest that grief has a significant impact on our health, adding to a growing body of evidence that suggests those who have been widowed are at a higher risk of premature mortality. Physicians should identify grief-stricken individuals as being at risk and should devise interventions that target these risk factors, like behavioral therapy or drugs.