Our ability to cope with grief changes as we age, says new research coming out of the journal Immunity and Ageing. The study is the first of its kind to observe how stress hormones and immune function evolve throughout our lifetime. Analyzing participants of all ages, researchers found that the elderly are more likely to have reduced immune functions, and ultimately, be more susceptible to illness when under stress.

The study focused on stress hormones resulting from grief and how they affect our body's ability to resist infections —specifically observing participants who had recently suffered the loss of a close loved one. For instance, the research found that people who suffer from grief also experience reduced neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that plays a big role in combating illness.

Balancing Our Stress Hormones

Differences among age brackets began to appear when looking at two stress hormones in particular: cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate (DHEAS). Younger participants held a standard, balanced cortisol to DHEAS ratio. The older the participant, the more likely this ratio would tip towards a higher cortisol to DHEAS ratio. “Cortisol is known to suppress elements of the immune system during times of high stress, so having an unbalanced ratio of cortisol and DHEAS is going to affect how able we are to ward off illness and infection when grieving," explained Janet Lord, professor of Immune Cell Biology at the University of Birmingham.

The Relationship Between Age and Immune Function

Researchers hope that this study can offer a deeper insight into the relationship between stress, aging, and immune function. “The effects of loss are poorly understood on the whole –we know that it affects the immune system amongst other things—but we don't fully understand the role played by our stress hormones. We hope that this is a step towards that understanding […]" added Dr. Anna Phillips, Reader in Behavioral Medicine at the University of Birmingham. While the study does not point to a specific solution to resolve diminishing immune function in aging, researchers from the study spoke at the British Science Festival in Birmingham, suggesting hormonal supplements and similar products as a possible aid for the elderly with an increased risk of stress.


Date of original publication: .

Updated on November 10, 2015 .

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Ana Vitlic, Riyad Khanfer, Janet M Lord, Douglas Carroll, Anna C Phillips.Bereavement reduces neutrophil oxidative burst only in older adults: role of the HPA axis and immunesenescence. Immunity & Ageing, 2014; 11 (1): 13 DOI:10.1186/1742-4933-11-13