advertisement

Sleep Disorders

14 December 2018

After a spouse's death, sleep woes increase health risks

Poor sleep as a result of grief, after the death of a loved one, can have negative effects on your health.

The death of a spouse can understandably bring sleepless nights. Now, research suggests those sleep troubles raise the odds of immune system dysfunction – which in turn can trigger chronic inflammation.

For the surviving spouse, that could mean an increased risk for heart disease and cancer, though the study did not prove a cause-and-effect link.

"We think these individuals are more vulnerable to the negative effects of poor sleep," said corresponding author Diana Chirinos. She's a research assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

The study included 101 people, average age 67. Half had recently lost a spouse, while the other half were married or single.

Sleep disturbances and inflammation

Researchers found that the association between sleep disturbances and inflammation was two to three times higher in the grieving spouses, according to the study published recently in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

"The death of a spouse is an acutely stressful event, and they have to adapt to living without the support of the spouse," Chirinos said. "Add sleep disturbance to their already stressful situation, and you double the stressor. As a result, their immune system is more overactivated."

Grieving spouses are at increased risk of developing heart disease or dying within a year of their partner's death, the researchers noted.

"We already knew bereaved people had higher inflammation and a higher risk for heart disease and dying within a year of the spouse's death," Chirinos said. "But what was causing it? Was it the grief or sadness itself, loneliness or sleep? Now we know it's not the grief itself; it is the sleep disturbance that arises from that grief."

The main sleep problem associated with an overactivated immune system was poor sleep efficiency, which can include insomnia, early waking or difficulty falling asleep.

For bereaved people, the study highlights the importance of treating sleep problems, Chirinos said, adding that doctors need to ask patients about their sleep after a spouse dies.

Image credit: iStock

 

Ask the Expert

Sleep disorders expert

Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules