Aging News & Information
Age Makes Difference in Response
to Grief, Seniors Take it Harder
Critical age at which losing a loved
one threatens serious harm to the immune system appears to be around age
9, 2014 – The balance of our stress hormones during periods of grief
changes as we age, according to a new study. For example, young people
have a more robust immune response to the loss of a loved one. It is,
however, more likely to result in reduced immune function in elderly
people, who are then likely to suffer from infections.
“Bereavement can have a devastating
impact on the immune systems of older people and may explain why many
elderly spouses die soon after the loss of their loved ones, scientists
have said,” according to Steve Connor, Science Editor, reporting on the
“The critical age at which losing a
loved one threatened to cause serious harm to the immune system appears
to be around 65,” Connor reported.
The study from the
University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, provides insight into how
different generations cope with loss and is published in the journal
Immunity and Ageing. Participants were studied while grieving for
the loss of a loved one; either a spouse or close family member.
It is reportedly the first
research to compare different generations and display the relationship
between stress hormones and immune function across different stages in
“During the difficult weeks and
months after loss we can suffer from reduced neutrophil function.
Neutrophils are the most abundant type of white blood cell and as such
are essential at combating infections and illness, so we become
vulnerable when this happens,” says Dr Anna Phillips, Reader in
Behavioural Medicine at the University of Birmingham
The results of the study suggest
a relationship between neutrophil function and the balance of our stress
hormones. Two stress hormones in particular appear to display different
responses to loss as we age; cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone
In younger participants, the
ratio of cortisol and DHEAS was more balanced, whereas the
cortisol-to-DHEAS ratio was significantly higher in the older study
“The effects of loss are poorly
understood on the whole – we know that it affects the immune system
amongst other things – but we don’t fully understand the role played by
our stress hormones,” said Dr. Phillips.
“We hope that this is a step
towards that understanding, and being able to provide the best possible
About Broken Heart Syndrome (stress cardiomyopathy, takotsubo
By Mayo Clinic staff
heart syndrome is a temporary heart condition brought on by stressful situations, such as the death of a loved one. People with broken
heart syndrome may have sudden chest pain or think they're having a heart attack. These broken heart syndrome symptoms may be brought
on by the heart's reaction to a surge of stress hormones. In broken heart syndrome, a part of your heart temporarily enlarges and
doesn't pump well, while the remainder of the heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions.
The condition was originally called takotsubo cardiomyopathy.
Today, it's also referred to as stress cardiomyopathy, stress-induced cardiomyopathy or apical
The symptoms of broken heart syndrome are treatable, and the condition usually reverses itself
in about a week.
More by Mayo Clinic
Professor Janet Lord, Professor
of Immune Cell Biology at the University of Birmingham, added, “Cortisol
is known to suppress elements of the immune system during times of high
stress, so having an unbalanced ratio of cortisol and DHEAS is going to
affect how able we are to ward of illness and infection when grieving.
“But, of course, it is also
incredibly useful - particularly in activating some anti-stress and
anti-inflammation pathways – so it’s not as simple as trying to suppress
the cortisol in vulnerable people.”
The researchers, speaking at the
British Science Festival in Birmingham,
consider that hormonal supplements or similar products could be used to
help people at an increased risk of stress but that this is not the only
Dr. Phillips concluded, “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. 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.”
The University of Birmingham has
been named The Times and The Sunday Times University of
the Year 2013/4. It is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions,
its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including
researchers and teachers and more than 4,000 international students from
nearly 150 countries.
reduces neutrophil oxidative burst only in older adults: role of the HPA
axis and immunesenescence’ Ana
Vitlic, Riyad Khanfer, Janet M Lord, Douglas Carroll and Anna C
Phillips. Immunity & Ageing 2014, 11:13 doi:10.1186/1742-4933-11-13
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