2. May 2019
How grief affects the immune system

The loss of a life partner damages the immune system of the bereaved person.

People who have lost someone close to them get sick more easily. Widowed people also have a 41 per cent higher risk of early death than those who still have their spouse.


Researchers at the University of Arizona found that the loss of a life partner can also damage the immune system of the bereaved. “The psychological responses to bereavement, such as depression and grief, appear to influence immune function”, says Lindsey Knowles, author of review article published in ‘Psychosomatic Medicine’. She and her colleagues examined 36 studies on this subject, spanning over four decades. The first scientific study dates back to 1977.


Bereaved people demonstrated higher levels of systemic inflammation. This inflammation affects the entire body and was not limited to one part of the body or organ. They also had a lower antibody response to vaccination compared to their non-bereaved peers.


“This research is important because if the immune system is a mechanism for poor health outcomes after bereavement, some day clinicians may be able to track changes in patients’ immunity and prevent medical complications after this difficult experience”, says Knolwes.


L Knowles, J Ruiz, M-F O’Connor. A Systematic Review of the Association Between Bereavement and Biomarkers of Immune Function

Psychosomatic Medicine. April 2019

Four Questions: How Grief Affects the Immune System. Interview mit der Studienautorin Lindsey Knowles. UANews, University of Arizona, April 10, 2019