Contact: Mary-Frances O’Connor, PhD
For Release: Immediately
As the oldest scouts in the huge Baby Boomer generation move through their 70s, more adults than ever are likely to be facing the death of a spouse. And that poses a significant health risk to the surviving partner. Compared to similar married people, bereaved spouses are more likely to have heart attacks and strokes and to be diagnosed with cancer within six months of their mate’s death. Bereaved men also are nearly twice as likely to die in this time frame, while widows have a 10% to 20% higher death rate than comparable married women. A growing pool of studies confirms this risk.
Now the most cutting-edge evidence is exploring:
- Possible causes for this medical impact on survivors.
- Which people appear to be at highest risk.
- Behaviors that contribute to (or help prevent) long-term mental health problems.
- And how bereavement may affect cognitive health.
A research summary of the newest scientific findings, published online ahead of print, will appear in a forthcoming issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
Six months after their partner has passed away, about three out of five surviving spouses aren’t higher in depressive symptoms than before the death and have no impairment in daily functioning. “They still feel pangs of grief—that’s normal—but they’re resilient,” says Mary-Frances O’Connor, Associate Professor of Psychology at University of Arizona, author of the report.
At the other end of the spectrum, about one out of 10 survivors have what researchers call “Complicated Grief.” They feel a persistent yearning for and preoccupation with the loved one, have trouble engaging socially or at work, and they may feel recurring guilt or anger.
Grieving spouses, particularly those still slammed hard six months after the loss, show multiple physical changes that could help explain their increased illness and death rates, suggests O’Connor. Compared to the non-bereaved, they have higher blood pressure and heart rates, higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, an increase in a biological sign of inflammation, and their immune cells that fight off viruses and flu are functioning less well. “We think of it as the perfect storm, so it’s not surprising that they’re more vulnerable,” says O’Connor.
Lots of ruminating about the departed spouse (more likely if it’s an unexpected death) is linked to amplified grief and depressive symptoms. Some ruminate little about their partner but engage in endless brooding about whether they could have done something to prevent the death or the injustice of the loss, and that, too, worsens adjustment. “Everyone ruminates to some extent, but people with Complicated Grief just can’t let go. They don’t accept the death, so they can’t adjust to their new lives,” explains O’Connor.
Their brain images even look different from images of the better adjusted widowed: Prompted by references to their mate, a brain area that correlates with yearning is more activated in those with Complicated Grief. “In other words, their brain is still showing a response to the deceased that we might expect for those still alive,” she notes. Other imaging studies suggest a brain area that helps us regulate our emotions isn’t working as well in bereaved spouses as in the non-bereaved, with the worst impairment in those who have Complicated Grief.
And cognitive health also may be hindered by severe, prolonged grief after losing a spouse. A large, seven-year study showed greater cognitive decline in those with Complicated Grief than in the non-bereaved. However, widowed people who weren’t seriously impaired by their loss showed no cognitive decline over the seven years.
The next important frontier in this field is prevention, O’Connor concludes: “Now we know about these risk factors. Researchers and clinicians need to look at potential preventive therapies, exploring how we can intervene to help.”
Study Link: http://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0000000000000717
Faculty Page: https://mfoconnor.faculty.arizona.edu
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (http://www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1943, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that organizes an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”