A study carried out by Rice University, and Northwestern University has indicated that individuals who have recently lost a partner have a higher risk or experiencing sleep disturbances that may particularly bad for their heart.  Grief leads to sleep disruptions that aggravate levels of inflammation in the body and increase the risk for cardiovascular illness.

The study is a part of a much larger project called HEART, and its results were published in Psychosomatic Medicine. In this research, scientists have compared analyzed the sleep habits and sleep disturbances of recently widowed people. Results of the study indicate that sleep disturbances and inflammation were 2 to 3 times higher in recent widows and widowers. The level of inflammation in the body was measured by measuring the levels of proinflammatory cytokines. Proinflammatory cytokines are well-known as short-term fighters of a disease, but they are also linked to long-term risk for severe health problems such as heart disease.

One of the authors of the study, Diana Chirinos, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, started exploring this topic in her postdoctoral studies at the Rice Academy, and found out that bereaved individuals are overall more affected by the negative effects of poor sleep than people who are not grieving at the moment. The death of a spouse is as a very stressful event and requires a lot of time and emotional strength in order to be handled. It is entirely reasonable to experience sleep disturbances at that time. However, poor sleep is another major stress for the body. When you add poor sleep to an already stressful situation, you are doubling the stressor. As a result, your immune system will become over-activated and raise the levels of proinflammatory cytokines in your body.

Some studies in the past already showed that widowed people had higher levels of inflammation in their body and revealed that they are at a 41% higher risk of mortality. However, an interesting fact is that 53% of this increased risk is due to heart disease. Diana Chirinos and her fellow researchers wanted to identify the specific cause. This study has shown that grief is not the primary cause of this increased risk, but the sleep disruptions that arise from that grief.

Chris Fagundes, the principal investigator for Project HEART, said that this study is very important because it reveals how human activities and certain behaviors affect inflammation and how grief can impact our health. Further research aims to help come up with effective health interventions for those who have recently experienced a loss.