The unique impact of late-life bereavement and prolonged grief on diurnal cortisol

J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2014 Jan;69(1):4-11. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbt051. Epub 2013 Jun 5.


Objectives: This study expands on previous research by examining the effects of prolonged grief disorder (PGD) symptoms and bereavement on diurnal cortisol patterns above and beyond depressive symptomatology.

Methods: Drawing on information from 56 depressed older adults, 3 groups were compared: (1) a depressed nonbereaved group, (2) a depressed bereaved without elevated PGD symptoms group, and (3) a depressed bereaved with elevated PGD symptoms group. Multilevel modeling was used to examine differences in diurnal cortisol profiles between these 3 groups, controlling for demographic factors and depressive symptoms.

Results: Results revealed that those who were bereaved had more dysregulated cortisol patterns, but PGD symptomatology seemed to have little effect. Subsidiary analysis with just the bereaved participants suggests that those who were recently widowed may have had greater cortisol dysregulation compared with other bereaved individuals in the sample.

Discussion: These findings suggest that the circumstance of being bereaved may be associated with more dysregulated cortisol, regardless of PGD symptomatology. This pattern of results might reflect greater disturbance in daily routines among bereaved individuals and acute stress in the case of those experiencing the recent loss of a spouse, which leads to disruption in circadian rhythms and the diurnal cycle of cortisol.

Keywords: Biomarkers; Complicated grief.; Death and dying; Salivary cortisol; Widowhood.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Bereavement*
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology
  • Depression / physiopathology
  • Depression / psychology
  • Female
  • Grief*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis
  • Hydrocortisone / physiology*
  • Male
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Widowhood / psychology


  • Hydrocortisone