Grief can play a part in older patient illness, research finds
Article date: 12 September 2014
Older people are more susceptible than their younger counterparts to the negative health effects of grief, a new study has revealed.
Research carried out by experts at the University of Birmingham found that the body's immune system can react differently to issues of bereavement and unhappiness depending on the subject's age.
The subsequent statistics demonstrated that those who experienced grief at a young age seemed to be more resilient to its potentially negative effects than those who were in an older bracket.
As part of the investigation, scientists split participants into two groups - one where the average age was 32 years old and another where it was around 75. To try to quantify the effect of grief, they then measured how a white blood cell known as neutrophil - which is essential in the combat of infection - behaved, along with cortisone and dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate (DHEAS), both of which are stress hormones.
Researchers were able to conclude that the older group reacted by displaying a lower immune function, which could suggest the reason behind the phenomenon where both members of an aging couple die quick succession of one another.
"We’ve all heard stories about someone who died and the spouse is perfectly healthy, but maybe they break their hip, then get pneumonia," said study author Anna Phillips.
"If stress from bereavement makes the neutrophils stop working well, then that person with an added trauma like a broken hip becomes more susceptible."
The investigation has resulted in the team considering how this problem can be counteracted so the aforementioned spouses can continue on without their physical wellbeing being affected.
One possible solution could be to provide older patients in such circumstances with DHEAS supplements to try to tackle the reduced levels experiences during the study period. Alternatively, physicians could recommend attempting to achieve a natural balance of hormones via regular exercise and social activity.