Body chemistry can predict severity of depression after death of spouse

Sad old woman

Body chemistry can predict severity of depression after death of spouse

HOUSTON – (May 19, 2021) – A new study from researchers at Rice University has found that bodily inflammation after the death of a spouse can predict future depression.

Elderly woman looks sadly out the window.
Elderly woman looks sadly out the window.

"Inflammation and future depressive symptoms among recently bereaved spouses" will appear in the June 2021 edition of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. 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, led the study. The research team evaluated 99 people who lost their spouses within 2-3 months of the study on a number of factors, including physical and mental health, across a three-month period.

"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 who had higher levels of bodily inflammation right after the loss of their partners showed more severe symptoms of depression three months later than those with lower inflammation, especially if they didn't experience significant depression initially.

Fagundes said depression following the death of a spouse is normal, and research shows that undergoing psychotherapy right away can actually interfere with people's natural ability to cope.

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

However, when depression is persistent or occurs six or more months after a spouse's death, it may be a sign that clinical intervention is needed, 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.

Angie LeRoy and Cobi Heijnen were co-authors of the study.


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To request a copy of the study or schedule an interview, contact Amy McCaig, senior media relations specialist at Rice, at or 217-417-2901.

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Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,978 undergraduates and 3,192 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for lots of race/class interaction and No. 1 for quality of life by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.