Inflammation a Predictor of Future Depression in Widowed Spouses

Researchers at Rice University have found that future depression in widowed spouses can be predicted by bodily inflammation after the death of their partners.

The study will be published in the June 2021 edition of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. The study was led by lead author Lydia Wu, a Rice psychology graduate student, and Christopher Fagundes, associate professor of psychology and principal investigator for the Biobehavioral Mechanisms Explaining Disparities (BMED) lab at Rice. The researchers recruited 99 participants who had lost their spouses within 2-3 months of the study, and evaluated them on a number of factors, including physical and mental health, over three months.

“Prior research has already linked bodily inflammation to a host of health issues, including cancer, memory issues, heart problems and depression,” Wu said. “We were interested in how systemic inflammation affects the mental health of spouses after losing a loved one. In particular, can inflammation help us identify who will experience clinical levels of depression at a future point in time?”

The researchers found that widowed spouses with higher levels of bodily inflammation immediately after the loss of their partners had more severe symptoms of depression three months later compared to those with lower inflammation levels. This was even more pronounced if they didn’t experience significant depression initially.

Prof Fagundes said that it is normal to experience depression following the death of a spouse, and research shows that undergoing psychotherapy right after the event can actually interfere with people’s natural coping ability.

“We know that most people are remarkably resilient,” he said.

In the case of persistent depression, or depression occurring six or more months after a spouse’s death, it may be a sign that clinical intervention is needed, Prof Fagundes said.

“Until this study, it was difficult to know who was at risk for these persistently high levels of depression and grief until the six-month mark,” he said. “This study identifies a potential biomarker that could help us predict who is at greatest risk for long-term repercussions of loss.”

“This information makes early intervention possible,” Wu said. “We can identify at-risk bereaved persons and introduce them to interventions early on to improve their mental health.”

The researchers said more research is needed to determine who might be at greatest risk.

Source: Rice University

Journal information: E. Lydia Wu et al, Inflammation and future depressive symptoms among recently bereaved spouses, Psychoneuroendocrinology (2021). DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2021.105206

Leave a Reply