Dying of a broken heart – Bereavement may cause immune system breakdown in older people

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Researchers have found that heartbreak may affect the immune system of older people and place them at higher risk of infection.

Scientists have stated that when older people suffer bereavement their defences against bacteria are weak. This could result in them becoming more vulnerable to infections that could kill, such as pneumonia.

A reader in behavioural medicine at Birmingham University, Anna Phillips, recruited people who had suffered the loss of a loved one, either a family member or spouse, in the past two months. She assessed how well their immune cells, called neutrophils, performed. These cells go to the site of infection and release reactive oxygen species (ROS) to kill bacteria.

Phillips said that in those over the age of 65, the neutrophils released insufficient ROS to kill bacteria. In a group aged between 18 and 45, the immune cells worked as they should.

The next stage was to look at the level of stress hormones in the blood of the participants, particularly the levels of cortisol, which is the main stress hormone, and another, called dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate (DHEAS). Cortisol is able to weaken the immune system and DHEAS boosts it.

She discovered that younger people who had suffered bereavement indicated a normal balance of stress hormones, whilst older people appeared to have more cortisol than DHEAS. She believes that this lack of DHEAS in older people is a natural aging process of the immune system where there is not sufficient to fight the effects of cortisol. This results in inefficiency of the neutrophils.

Phillips is considering the launch of a trial to determine if DHEAS supplements may help older people fight infections in the time after bereavement. However, this approach has caused controversy as there is not much evidence to suggest that a boost to the hormone will result in improved health. Phillips also warned that supplements that are available on the internet were not reliable and often did not contain any DHEAS.

She said that bereavement is one of the main stressors and it happens to everyone at some point, which means we should all be aware of the negative impact it may have on health. It is important to take care during this time and not try to cope on your own. She said one of the best methods is to engage with social support networks and not become isolated.

She added that this may be difficult for an older person who may have lost their main source of support, which makes it important for older people to be involved in their community as that will result in them having support during this stressful period.

Image Credit: bp6316

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