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  • By Robert Preidt HealthDay Reporter
  • Posted June 17, 2022

How Grief Harms the Body After a Spouse's Death

Heartache and heartbreak are apt terms for the intense grief caused by losing a spouse.

A new study says such a loss can lead to major health problems and even death, and the paper may help explain why that happens.

When faced with stressful situations, grieving spouses have significant increases in body inflammation. Inflammation is associated with a range of health issues, including serious heart troubles and premature death, the Rice University researchers said.

"I was extremely motivated to publish this work because it gives us insight into how severe grief can encourage inflammation to accumulate in the body and put widow(er)s at risk for cardiovascular disease," study co-author Ryan Linn Brown said in a university news release.

"Because we face many stressful events each day as humans, this type of response to stress in the lab means that this same process is likely happening repeatedly throughout each day or week for widows or widowers experiencing more severe grief symptoms," said Brown, a recent Ph.D. graduate in the department of psychological sciences.

For the study, the research team analyzed how stress affected levels of inflammatory biomarkers in the blood of 111 adults, aged 35 to 84, who had lost a spouse in the past year.

Blood samples were collected at the start of the study and again 45 minutes and two hours after a stressful event that was part of the research. Examples include a simulated job interview with rapid-fire questioning and an assessment of complicated math tasks.

On average, participants who reported intense grief after the loss of their spouse - including deep sorrow, numbness, yearning and loss of focus - had a 19% greater increase in inflammatory biomarkers after the stressful situations compared to those who reported less severe grief, the investigators found.

The study was published recently in the journal Psychological Science.

The findings add to understanding of the processes that underlie the "widowhood effect," and provide more evidence that grief directly affects the inflammatory stress response, according to study co-author Chris Fagundes, an associate professor in the department of psychological sciences.

More information

There's more on bereavement and grief at Mental Health America.

SOURCE: Rice University, news release, June 13, 2022

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