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Grief, the Thief of Sleep

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in bed alone

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The loss of a spouse can lead to a cascade of ill health effects.

A bereaved widower dies a few months after his beloved spouse passes away. A widow endures a funeral for her longtime love, only to succumb to death within a year herself. We’ve all heard stories like these. Now, new research is shedding light on why increased mortality occurs after the loss of a long-time partner.  

Previous research has already show that in the first six months after the death of a spouse, the remaining partner is at a 41 percent higher risk of mortality, and much of this risk is due to cardiovascular disease. But scientists wanted to find a specific cause of this. In a published study from Rice University and Northwestern University, sleep disturbances were determined to be a trigger that causes rising inflammation levels in the body. These inflammation levels, in turn, raise the risk of problems with the cardiovascular system, leading to death—the “broken heart” phenomenon we observe when two lovebirds pass away so closely in time to each other.  

This new study used two groups of people, totaling 101, who reported their sleep habits. The average age was 67. Both groups featured people who were experiencing sleep struggles, such as insomnia or popping awake in the middle of the night, but one group was recently widowed, while the other group was a control group. The researchers found that for the group that was bereaved, inflammation was two to three times higher, as measured by proinflammatory cytokines. Cytokines are small proteins released by the cells within the body, like messengers. Proinflammatory cytokines are associated with the immune response and they can fight disease. Having them linger, though, is linked to a higher risk of health problems such as heart disease.  

The study suggests that people who are bereaved are more susceptible to the problems caused by a lack of quality sleep. ““Now we know it’s not the grief itself; it is the sleep disturbance that arises from that grief,” wrote the study’s corresponding author, Diana Chirinos, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University. She explained in her research, “The death of a spouse is an acutely stressful event and they have to adapt to living without the support of the spouse. Add sleep disturbance to their already stressful situation and you double the stressor. As a result, their immune system is more overactivated.”

Ideally, this study and others like it will one day lead to the creation of health interventions for people who are suffering from loss, to better protect their hearts as they go through the grieving process.


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Savannah. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!.


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