Grief brings infection risk for elderly

Posted on October 24, 2014

Bereavement affects a person’s immune system, and the impact varies as we grow older, say researchers.

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.

As we age, the balance of so-called “stress hormones” during grief alters, putting the elderly at greater risk of reduced immune function and consequent infections. The young bereaved participants in a recent study showed “robust neutrophil function,” whereas it was reduced among the older bereaved participants.

Specifically, the hormones cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate (DHEAS) respond differently to loss as we age. This has a negative impact on neutrophil function. In younger people, the ratio of cortisol and DHEAS was more balanced, whereas cortisol was significantly higher than DHEAS among older participants. This is a hormone with known immune-suppressive effects. DHEAS, while also secreted by the adrenal gland in response to stress, is thought to be immune-enhancing.

Hormonal supplements or similar products may prove to be useful for people at an increased risk. 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.

These data suggest that the effects of some types of stress on immunity may only be observed among older adults, or among those with poorer psychological status, e.g., high depressive symptoms. In fact, there is accumulating evidence that stress and age are interactive, with chronic stress exacerbating the immune effects of aging.

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Source material from Psych Central