Health Consequences for the Bereaved
Bereaved elderly spouses have a 30-90% mortality rate in the first three months following spousal death and a 15% mortality rate in the following months. Often called the “widowhood effect” this well researched phenomenon illustrates clearly that grief has a real and profound impact on one’s health. Whether the death is impending or entirely unexpected, the loss of a loved one has predictable adverse consequences on the health of those left behind.
Losing a loved one, particularly a partner or spouse, has been repeatedly shown to increase the risk of cardiac events in the surviving. The development of an irregular heartbeat, or atrial fibrillation, is more likely in a surviving spouse than in those not grieving. Presence of an atrial fibrillation can lead to cardiac complications such as stroke, angina, and heart failure. Further, the release of large amounts of stress hormones following the death can induce Takotsubo’s cardiomyopathy, which looks and feels like a real heart attack and can, in rare cases, lead to sudden death. Research has also shown that surviving siblings of those who died of a heart attack have a greatly increased risk for dying of a heart attack themselves in the years following the death.
Neutrophils are white blood cells that play an important role in the body’s immune system. Research has shown that among older subjects, the loss of a loved one has a detrimental impact on the functioning of neutrophils. Whether this denigration of function is purely a result of the loss or as a result of increased cortisol in the system is yet to be determined. In any event, the result is the same. In older bereaved, immune system functionality is compromised during grief leaving the person more susceptible to infection, disease, and even death.
Mental Health Considerations
Loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, insomnia, feelings of isolation, inability to make decisions, and confusion are all common symptoms while grieving. If the bereaved does not have support from others during this difficult period they run the risk of falling into a clinical depression. Particularly if the death was sudden, tying up loose ends and dealing with unfinished business can promote anxiety, which impacts the person’s ability to manage daily life.
Oftentimes those who have lost a loved one turn to alcohol, smoking, drugs, and other unhealthy habits. Naturally these coping mechanisms bring about numerous health concerns. The loss of interest or ability to maintain adequate sleep and exercise exacerbate the problem.
The loss of a loved one represents the most difficult period of most people’s lives. Physical, emotional, and mental health decline only make it that much harder to endure. Proper support, self care, and time can work to improve outcomes.
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