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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 65

Sept. 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 study in The Independent.

“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 human life.

“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


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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 sulphate (DHEAS).

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 group.

 “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 support.”

About Broken Heart Syndrome (stress cardiomyopathy, takotsubo cardiomyopathy)

By Mayo Clinic staff

Broken 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 ballooning syndrome.

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 solution.

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.

Source:Bereavement 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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