Grief could weaken seniors' immune systems, study finds

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Anna Phillips, Ph.D.
Anna Phillips, Ph.D.

The elderly are more likely than younger people to have compromised immunity and experience infections while grieving, according to a British study.

Research in Immunity & Ageing is the first to trace how hormones shift in response to grief and how the balance changes with age.

A team from the University of Birmingham found the stress hormones cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate (DHEAS) responded to loss differently in the young and old; the cortisol-to-DHEAS ratio was almost twice as high in older, bereaved participants.

Reduced function of neutrophil — white blood cells critical to fighting off infection — is common after loss. This study indicates that the relationship between those cells and shifting stress hormones could be the culprit, said researcher Anna Phillips, Ph.D.

“The changing ratio is something we need to learn much more about, and need to test whether altering that balance artificially could be a short-term help at times of stress,” Phillips said. “However, there is, quite simply, no substitute for a strong support network of family and friends to help manage the risks during a period of grieving.”

Participants had lost a spouse or close family member within two months of the study period.