In a new study, researchers found that people who have recently lost a spouse are more likely to have sleep disturbances that exacerbate levels of inflammation in the body.
These elevated levels of inflammation may increase risk for cardiovascular illness and death.
The new research is from Rice University and Northwestern University.
The study included 101 people with an average age of 67. Half were bereaved (identified through obituaries), and the rest made up the control group.
It compared the self-reported sleep habits of recently widowed people to a control group. Both groups had sleep disturbances, such as insomnia.
The researchers found that the link between sleep disturbances and inflammation was two to three times higher for the bereaved spouses.
Inflammation was measured by the level of proinflammatory cytokines.
Proinflammatory cytokines are designed to be short-term fighters of disease but are linked to long-term risk for health problems including cardiovascular disease.
The team said the study suggests that these bereaved individuals are more susceptible to the negative health effects of poor sleep.
The death of a spouse is an acutely stressful event and they have to adapt to living without the support of the spouse.
Add sleep disturbance to their already stressful situation and you double the stressor. As a result, their immune system is more overactivated.
Previous research has shown that widowed individuals had higher levels of inflammation.
Prior work revealed that in the first six months after the loss of a spouse, widows, and widowers are at a 41% higher risk of mortality, and 53% of this increased risk is due to cardiovascular disease.
However, the specific cause was unknown.
The current study shows that it’s not the grief itself; it is the sleep disturbance that arises from that grief.
The finding is another revelation in the current study of how human behaviors and activities impact inflammation.
It adds to a growing body of work about how bereavement can affect health.
The team also has shown why people who have been widowed are at higher risk of cardiovascular problems and premature death by comparing their inflammation with matched controls.
Ultimately, the researchers hope their findings will help to design better health interventions for those suffering from loss.
The corresponding author is Diana Chirinos, a research assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Rice, is the principal investigator for Project HEART.
The study, ”Bereavement, self-reported sleep disturbances and inflammation: Results from Project HEART,” is published in Psychosomatic Medicine.
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Source: Rice University.