Grief 'wipes out' immune system
Bereavement can have a devastating impact on the immune systems of older people and may explain why many elderly spouses die soon after the loss of their loved ones, scientists have said.
A study has found that a key component of the immune defences that protect the body against lethal infections is weakened in the period of grief when someone loses a person very close to them.
However, the researchers found that the phenomenon was only seen in people older than 65. Younger people appear to be less susceptible to the physical effects of bereavement on their immune systems.
The study involved analysing a type of white blood cell called the neutrophil that plays a critical role in fending off any invasions of bacteria or other infectious agents that could lead to serious illnesses, such as pneumonia, which often claims the lives of elderly, bereaved people.
"The neutrophil is a white blood cell ... If your neutrophils are not working properly and you're exposed to pneumonia, then you're in trouble," said Anna Phillips, Reader in Behavioural Medicine at the University of Birmingham.
The study compared the functional response of the neutrophils in 30-strong groups of bereaved younger and older people, as well as non-bereaved individuals.
While neutrophil numbers were not lowered in the older people, their ability to kill bacteria with destructive molecules was compromised.
The neutrophils of younger people experiencing grief were not affected the same way, Dr Phillips found.
"We thought this was really interesting and may be one of the key reasons why older people are more susceptible to infection after a bereavement," she said.