How heartbreak can kill you: Grief can cause deadly inflammation, study finds

HOUSTON — We see stories covered by local news outlets time and time again featuring elderly couples who spent nearly their entire lives together, only to pass away hours or days apart. Now a new study may explain why.

Researchers from Rice University say that people who struggle to overcome grief caused by loss of a loved one are at greater risk of suffering from potentially deadly levels of inflammation. Conversely, those who have an easier time dealing with a spouse’s death are prone to healthier outcomes.

“Previous research has shown that inflammation contributes to almost every disease in older adulthood,” notes lead author of the study, Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychological sciences, in a statement. “We also know that depression is linked to higher levels of inflammation, and those who lose a spouse are at considerably higher risk of major depression, heart attack, stroke and premature mortality. However, this is the first study to confirm that grief — regardless of people’s levels of depressive symptoms — can promote inflammation, which in turn can cause negative health outcomes.”

For the study, Fagundes and his research team interviewed 99 widows or widowers who’d recently lost their spouses, and also had them give blood samples. The authors classified the participants by their level of grief; that is, those determined to be grieving more heavily — be it through trouble accepting the loss or their inability to let go — were compared to those who didn’t have as difficult a time with their loved one’s passing.

In comparing blood samples, Fagundes found those grieving more severely had up to 17 percent higher levels of inflammation versus those with lesser symptoms of grief. In fact, the top third of individuals struggling the most had a 53.4 percent higher level of inflammation than the bottom third of participants with the fewest difficulties and symptoms.

“This work shows who, among those who are bereaved, are at highest risk,” says Fagundes. “Now that we know these two key findings, we can design interventions to target this risk factor in those who are most at risk through behavioral or pharmacological approaches.”

In July, Fagundes also published research showing that widowed individuals were at greater risk of suffering from heart problems following a spouse’s death and up to 41 percent more likely to die themselves within the six months following the passing. This latest work now sheds light on a likely reason behind that finding.

The full study, which was supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, was published online on October 11, 2018 in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.