You Really Can Die From a Broken Heart

Grief brought on by the loss of a spouse can lead to premature death
November 4, 2018 Updated: November 4, 2018
For a new study, researchers examined the effect grief has on human health by conducting interviews with and examining the blood of 99 people whose spouses had recently died.

They compared people who showed symptoms of elevated grief—such as pining for the deceased, difficulty moving on, a sense that life is meaningless, and an inability to accept the reality of the loss—to people who did not exhibit those behaviors.

The findings show that widows and widowers with elevated grief symptoms suffered up to 17 percent higher levels of bodily inflammation. And people in the top one-third of that group had a 53.4 percent higher level of inflammation than the bottom one-third of the group who did exhibit those symptoms.

“Previous research has shown that inflammation contributes to almost every disease in older adulthood,” said Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Rice University and lead author of the paper, which appears in Psychoneuroendocrinology.

“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.”

The finding is an important revelation in the study of how human behaviors and activities impact inflammation levels in the body, Fagundes said, and it adds to a growing body of work about how bereavement can affect health.

His initial work showed why those who have been widowed are at higher risk of cardiovascular problems, bodily symptoms, and premature mortality by comparing inflammation in individuals mourning their spouse to matched controls.

“This work shows who, among those who are bereaved, are at highest risk,” Fagundes said. “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.”

Additional co-authors are from Rice University, Penn State, Vanderbilt University, and MD Anderson Cancer Center. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute supported the work.

This article was originally published by Rice University. Republished via under Creative Commons License 4.0.