How does bereavement impact the immune system?

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Losing a loved one is, of course, incredibly traumatic; it may also shorten lifespan. A recent paper reviews decades’ worth of research into bereavement and its effects on the immune system.

Bereavement and the immune system

Now, a literature review has attempted to tie previous findings together to create a clearer picture of this phenomenon. Specifically, the authors were interested in how bereavement and grief might negatively influence the immune system, thereby increasing mortality risk.

The authors, from the University of Arizona, in Tucson, recently published their paper in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

The researchers conducted a systematic review of published research from 1977 to now. In all, 33 studies met the grade to be considered for analysis and the scientists focused on 13, which were of the highest quality.

When asked why they conducted the research, one of the authors, Lindsey Knowles, explained that “There is strong evidence that spousal bereavement increases morbidity and risk for early mortality in widows and widowers; however, we have yet to discover how the stress of bereavement impacts health.”

A new review of the evidence

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

The paper outlines the primary findings from studies that have been carried out to date.

In particular, they identify that people who are bereaved have increased levels of inflammation, faulty immune cell gene expression, and reduced antibody responses to immune challenges.

These changes are all significant when trying to understand why people who are bereaved have a higher risk of death; for instance, scientists already know that chronic inflammation plays a part in a range of conditions, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

The authors also conclude that there is a link between the psychological impacts of bereavement — such as grief and depression — and how severely bereavement impacts immune function.

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