The science behind people who die of a broken heart

New research shows partners are at greater risk of bacterial infections

Research shows a component of the immune system that tackles bacterial infections becomes weakened after the death of someone close like a spouse. This could last for as long as a year, as seen in an older person’s poor immune response after receiving the flu vaccine. Photograph: Getty

Research shows a component of the immune system that tackles bacterial infections becomes weakened after the death of someone close like a spouse. This could last for as long as a year, as seen in an older person’s poor immune response after receiving the flu vaccine. Photograph: Getty

 

Older people who die soon after the passing of a loved one may not be dying of a broken heart. Research suggests they are succumbing to a broken immune system.

Staff at the University of Birmingham presented preliminary data that shows how changes in the immune system caused by stress hormones leaves the bereaved person at greater risk of bacterial infections such as pneumonia.

Dr Anna Phillips and Prof Janet Lord of the University of Birmingham looked at how a component of the immune system that tackles bacterial infections becomes weakened after the death of someone close like a spouse.

This could last for as long as a year, as seen in an older person’s poor immune response after receiving the flu vaccine, said Dr Phillips during a session at the Festival of Science at Birmingham.

“Often pneumonia is the killer”, she said because bacterial infections can rapidly escalate if the person can’t fight off the bug.

The two researchers set up a small trial involving one group of people from 18 to 45 and a group of over 65s and a matching group of controls. They found that the effectiveness of neutrophils, a form of white blood cell, is lowered after a bereavement.

The numbers of neutrophils did not fall in the older age group, it related to how well the cells did their job, Dr Phillips said. There was no matching decline in the younger group, even though they were experiencing elevated stress levels.

The key change was in the level of one stress hormone, DHEA, which was lowered in the older group.

“I am confident we are seeing something real,” Dr Phillips said. If the researchers’ conclusions are correct then it would open up the possibility of a drug therapy to boost levels of DHEA, she said.