Grieving Elderly and the Immune System

Published on

By Susan Heckler

Any type of loss or trauma throws your entire life into a tailspin. The loss of a loved one can particularly impact your emotional and physical health.

When you are under stress, ever notice a change in your blood pressure? It also throws off your cholester- ol levels, brain chemistry, blood sugar levels, and hor- monal balance. Stress plays a major role in your immune system. Our bodies have a delicate balance of two stress hormones, cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate (DHEAS). While the stress hormone cortisol is known to suppress the immune system, DHEAS enhances it, so maintaining a relatively balanced ratio helps to keep your immune system functioning properly.

New research shows that the elderly are more prone to a weakened immune system while grieving. They are more likely to develop infections than the younger people due to the hormonal imbalance. Studies noted illness-fighting white blood cells were reduced among the older bereaved study participants. By age 30, the amount of DHEAS we produce starts to decline, with elderly having about 20% of the DHEAS they had in their youth.

Grief is also associated with chronic diseases like ulcer- ative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, heart disease, and cancer. This is due, at least in part, to chronically ele- vated cortisol. Researchers found that losing a significant person in your life raises your risk of having a heart attack the next day by 21 times, and in the following week by 6 times. “Broken Heart Syndrome” is basically a “tempo- rary” heart attack that occurs due to stress. This diminish- es after about a month.

Sedentary behavior is linked to a 25 percent greater probability of being depressed compared to those who are active. This is true whether or not you’re grieving. It is un- certain which comes first, the depression or the inactivity, as one leads to the other in either direction. Activity trig- gers a number of neurotransmitters, such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, and GABA. These are well-known for their role in mood control. In many cases, being physically active may alleviate the need for anti-de- pressants.

During your time of crisis, pay careful attention to the elders and watch for warning signs.