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Description: You have no doubt heard a story or two about an elderly couple where, when one of them dies, the surviving partner also passes away fairly soon after. Can you recall if an explanation as to why this occurred was offered? Some version of a broken heart perhaps? Or maybe that the surviving partner did not want to go on without their life-companion and so gave up? Well, maybe think about this for a minute and hypothesize about why it might actually be the case that the death of a close loved one predicts increased mortality in the surviving member of the couple? Assuming that broken hearts, as poetic as that might be, are not mortality causal factors unless they are actually physically broken, which is not likely how a bereavement effect would work. Oh, and we should probably check to see if there actually IS a bereavement mortality effect as well. Once you have your hypotheses worked out have a read thought eh article lined below to see what research has had to say about this question.

Source: How Does Bereavement Impact the Immune System? Tim Newman, Medical News Today.

Date: April 15, 2019

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Indeed, bereavement seems to increase mortality (peaking 9 to 12 months after loss). More importantly, recent meta-analytic studies (that gather together available studies to provide a bigger picture view of what is going on) are beginning to show more clearly how this works – by driving inflammation which dampens the activity and effectiveness of the immune system. As well, some research is suggesting that depression is a mediating factor in this re4lationship and that could serve as a clinical marker of who should be provided treatment in addition to bereavement support. The results suggest  number of ways in which the story of the elderly couple who die within weeks or months of one another might be re-written more positively (if less romantically.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Does bereavement impact mortality?
  2. How does bereavement impact mortality? What other factors mark or moderate between bereavement and mortality?
  3. What medical/psychological practice guidelines might we suggest for GP’s and Psychologists working with bereaved clients?

References (Read Further):

Bartrop, R. W., Lazarus, L., Luckhurst, E., Kiloh, L. G., & Penny, R. (1977). Depressed lymphocyte function after bereavement. The Lancet, 309(8016), 834-836.

Knowles, L. M., Ruiz, J. M., & O’Connor, M. F. (2019). A Systematic Review of the Association Between Bereavement and Biomarkers of Immune Function. Psychosomatic Medicine.

Kaprio, J., Koskenvuo, M., & Rita, H. (1987). Mortality after bereavement: a prospective study of 95,647 widowed persons. American Journal of Public Health, 77(3), 283-287.

Schaefer, C., Quesenberry Jr, C. P., & Wi, S. (1995). Mortality following conjugal bereavement and the effects of a shared environment. American Journal of Epidemiology, 141(12), 1142-1152.

Stroebe, M. S. (1994). The broken heart phenomenon: An examination of the mortality of bereavement. Journal of community & applied social psychology, 4(1), 47-61.

Moon, J. R., Kondo, N., Glymour, M. M., & Subramanian, S. V. (2011). Widowhood and mortality: a meta-analysis. PloS one, 6(8), e23465.

Elwert, F., & Christakis, N. A. (2008). The effect of widowhood on mortality by the causes of death of both spouses. American journal of public health, 98(11), 2092-2098.