A mountain of research demonstrates that inflammation is a killer. When our bodies’ natural response to disease and injury is unchecked, it can lead to chronic conditions ranging from arthritis to depression to heart disease. Links have also been found to some cancers and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Less understood is whether our emotional responses also trigger and worsen inflammation. A new study zeroed in on that question by examining inflammation increases in people who had recently lost a spouse. The findings suggest that not only can grief result in more inflammation, but at levels comparable to life-threatening cardiovascular disease.
The researchers conducted interviews with just under 100 people whose spouses had recently died and also took samples of their blood. The blood samples of those who were experiencing “elevated grief,” including feeling like life had lost its meaning, had inflammation levels 17% higher than those who didn’t feel that way (measured by levels of inflammatory cytokine proteins). And the top one-third of the grieving group had levels nearly 54% higher than the bottom one-third.
“Previous research has shown that inflammation contributes to almost every disease in older adulthood,” said lead study author Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Rice University. “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.”
What this research tells us, first, is that the old saying about dying from a broken heart is truer than we realize. Grief, via inflammation, can kill us, and that’s not hyperbole. The results of the latest study confirm previous research showing that loss of a spouse “increases all-cause mortality of the bereaved partner.” That holds equally true for women and men, and particularly for older adults.
The findings also offer a warning about unmanaged emotions. Grieving is healthy, but what this research appears to show is that extreme grief that leads to losing a sense of life’s meaning is dangerous in more than one way. Whether or not we act on our emotions, they have biochemical consequences that can undermine our health.
The study was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinolgy.