Speed Reads

medical alert

Study: Grief can affect your immune system in old age

New research suggests that the body's immune system responses to grief may change with age. The study may provide insight as to why some elderly couples die within hours of each other.

Researchers at the U.K.'s University of Birmingham found that young people may be more "resilient" when bearing grief, while older people "become more susceptible to infection, Time reports. The study, published in the journal Immunity and Ageing, looked at 41 "young" people, who were roughly age 32, and 52 "older" people, who were roughly age 75. Some of the participants experienced grief, while others did not.

After measuring grief's effects on neutrophils, white blood cells that stop infection, the researchers found that the older participants who experienced grief had less neutrophil functions and less immune functions than the young people undergoing grief. The study serves as "evidence that older people are more likely to have a compromised immune system when experiencing grief," according to Time.

Anna Phillips, the study's author and a behavioral medicine researcher at the University of Birmingham, told Time that the findings may be explained by the elderly's immune systems having "less capacity to respond to new pathogens," leaving them with higher risks for infection.

"We've all heard stories about someone who died and the spouse is perfectly healthy, but maybe they break their hip, then get pneumonia," Phillips told Time. "If stress from bereavement makes the neutrophils stop working well, then that person with an added trauma like a broken hip becomes more susceptible." Her team is looking into whether hormone supplements could help grieving older people.