Although bereavement has long been thought to cause stress that can affect the immune system, no formal studies have been carried out on the topic in the past. However, a study conducted by researchers at Birmingham University in the U.K. investigated the link between stress and immune function across different ages. Looking at participants who were grieving the loss of a spouse or close family member, the study focused on levels of neutrophils, the most abundant type of white blood cells responsible for fighting illnesses and infections. The results revealed that as we grow older, the balance of stress hormones (cortisol, norepinephrine, etc.) changes, leaving one more at risk of developing grief-related illness with age.
Published in the journal Immunity and Ageing, the test group included two sets: 41 young adults with an average age of 32 years old, with 52 older adults with an average of 72 years. The younger group generally showed higher levels of neutrophil function, due most likely to their ratios of cortisol to DHEAS being more balanced, with the former outweighing the latter in the elderly group. Cortisol is a stress hormone associated with the fight-or-flight response, temporarily increasing energy and alertness but suppressing immune function in the process. DHEAS, like cortisol, are secreted by the adrenal glands on the kidneys in response to stress, but are believed to be immune-enhancing.
“The effects of loss are poorly understood on the whole, we know that it affects the immune system amongst other things, but we don’t fully understand the role played by our stress hormones. We hope that this is a step towards that understanding, and being able to provide the best possible support,” said Janet Lord, co-author of the study.
The researchers suggested that the higher levels of neutrophils in the younger test group were due to the absence of “immunosenescence and adrenopause,” or the gradual deterioration of the immune system over a lifetime and the slowing down of adrenal activity. In other words, the older group’s immune systems and adrenaline function were less healthy due to the effects of aging (dictated by genetic processes and not necessarily physical “wear and tear” that is commonly believed to be the reason).
However, the solution is more complex than simply suppressing the cortisol levels in the immune system. Cortisol is responsible for the activation of anti-inflammatory chemicals that could create more complications if its levels are reduced. The researchers suggest that temporary hormonal supplements could be useful for people suffering from grief or loss, naturally balancing cortisol levels with less collateral damage on other related biological processes.
Other forms of stress and illness
Grief is not the only form of stress that has been found to lead to lower levels of white blood cells and illness, nor is it the most impacting. Former studies on caregivers of former spouses with dementia suggest that the stress associated with the experience can lead to even lower white blood cells and immune function than Birmingham University’s research, also becoming riskier with age.
Past studies on hip fractures have also shown impaired immune function in older adults cortisol/DHEAS ratio, affecting the elderly patients with symptoms of depression the most. Other studies have found a correlation between lower marital satisfaction (as well as grief) and less effective response of their antibodies to vaccinations.
These tests all suggest that the effects of stress on immune system function are the most prevalent in older adults and those with poor mental health such as depression. There is also a growing body of evidence suggesting that stress itself exacerbates the immune effects of aging, leading to a higher biological age relative to the person’s actual age. The reality is most likely that the other effects associated with increased aging as well as the imbalance of cortisol/DHEAS ratios are contributing to the lower levels of white blood cells, requiring further research before the mechanisms can be completely understood.
The most important method of stress prevention is a strong support network; having effective social support does not only reduce stress, but can help us better avoid stressful situations in the future (assuming they can provide helpful advice). Sovereign Health understands the importance of maintaining a social support system while working towards recovery, by incorporating family and group therapy models as much as possible into our treatment programs. If you would like more information regarding stress or our approach to it in addiction and mental health treatment, feel free to contact our admissions staff today.
Written by Chase Beckwith, Sovereign Health Group writer