It really is possible to die from a broken heart as our immune system weakens when we are bereaved
For centuries musicians and writers have expressed the physical pain of a broken heart but now scientists at the University of Birmingham suggest their words may ring true.
Immunity experts claim they have found biological evidence to suggest that bereavement lowers physical immunity, putting people at risk of life-threatening infections.
The emotional stress of losing someone you love is associated with a drop in the efficiency of the white blood cells which combat infections such as pneumonia.
The research, funded by the Dunhill Medical Trust, goes some way to explaining why it is not uncommon for both partners in a long and happy marriage to die within a relatively short period.
'There are lots of anecdotes about couples who were married for 40 years when one of them passes away the other dies a few days later,' says lead researcher Professor Janet Lord.
'It seems there is a biological basis for this. But rather than dying of a broken heart, they are dying from a broken immune system.'
The research, published in the journal Brain Behaviour and Immunity, found those who had lost a loved one were also significantly more likely to experience depression and anxiety symptoms.
'I think the most important aspect of our work is showing that bereavement has a physiological impact on the body and that the bereaved need to be supported by friends, relatives and clinicians rather than being told to keep a stiff upper lip.'
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