Grief is conceptualized by strong negative emotions, which include longing, sadness, and preoccupations with thoughts, recollections, and images of the spouse. In the initial months after the loss of a spouse, those who are widowed are at risk for cardiovascular problems and premature mortality. In the general population, depression is characterized by chronic low-grade inflammation, a key predictor of cardiovascular problems, morbidity, and mortality. Although depression and grief share similarities, they are distinct constructs. We aimed to identify if grief was related to inflammation among those who had a spouse recently die. We also sought to determine if those who are widowed and already experience elevated levels of depressive symptoms compared with the general population had higher levels of inflammation compared with those who are widowed who report fewer depressive symptoms. Ninety-nine recently bereaved individuals (M = 84.74 days since passing, SD = 18.17) completed a blood draw and psychological assessments. Proinflammatory T cell-derived cytokines were assessed, which included interferon gamma (IFN-γ), interleukin (IL)-6, tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), IL17-A, and IL-2. Bereaved individuals with a higher grief severity (using an established cut-score) had higher levels of the proinflammatory cytokines IFN-γ, IL-6, and TNF-α than those with less grief severity. Those who experienced higher levels of depression exhibited elevated levels of proinflammatory cytokines compared with those who had lower levels of depression (using a continuous measure of depressive symptoms, as well as an established cut score). This is the first study to demonstrate that inflammatory markers can distinguish those who are widowed based on grief severity such that those who are higher on grief severity have higher levels of inflammation compared with those who are lower on grief severity. These findings also add to the broader literature on depression and inflammation by showing that even in a population with high levels of depressive symptoms, there is a positive relationship between depression and inflammation.
Keywords: Bereavement; Depression; Grief; Inflammation; Psychoneuroimmunology; Widow.
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