MAY 24, 2021 7:00 AM PDT

How Grief Can Affect the Immune System

WRITTEN BY: Tara Fernandez

A new study by researchers at Rice University has shown that sleep loss often following the death of a spouse can have long-term consequences on the immune health of the widowed spouse.

Previous studies had linked widowed spouses with an elevated risk of heart conditions or even death in the period after the loss of their loved one.

“We also know that [the] death of a spouse can dramatically affect [the] sleep quality of surviving loved ones,” explained Lydia Wu, lead author of the publication. “We wanted to see whether changes in sleep were linked to changes in immune health in surviving partners.”

In a study involving 106 participants, Wu and colleagues surveyed sleep quality, overall health, and demographic information three to six months after the death of their partners. They also obtained blood samples from the participants.

Analyses revealed a connection between poor sleep quality and heightened levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the blood, an indicator of systemic inflammation. Additionally, participants with lower levels of education were found to be far more sensitive to sleep disruptions, with these individuals showing a marked change in inflammatory markers when sleep quality improved or nosedived.

“We are finding again and again that sleep quality plays a major role in a person’s health,” said the lead investigator of the study, Christopher Fagundes.

“This study adds to existing research showing that socioeconomic differences can exacerbate the health risks of grieving individuals.”

 

Sources: Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology, Rice University


 

About the Author
  • Tara Fernandez has a PhD in Cell Biology and has spent over a decade uncovering the molecular basis of diseases ranging from skin cancer to obesity and diabetes. She currently works on developing and marketing disruptive new technologies in the biotechnology industry. Her areas of interest include innovation in molecular diagnostics, cell therapies, and immunology. She actively participates in various science communication and public engagement initiatives to promote STEM in the community.
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