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Tracking the health impacts of grief: 'People suffer when they lose someone'

Bereavement has a medical cost: It's linked to higher blood pressure, shorter lives and sleeping problems. (Getty Images)
Bereavement has a medical cost: It's linked to higher blood pressure, shorter lives and sleeping problems. (Getty Images)

Cicero once said: “There is no grief which time does not lessen and soften.”

More than 2,000 years later, the Roman scholar’s words still resonate for many Americans grieving during the pandemic.

Grief, whether it’s caused by COVID-19 or other deaths, has a medical cost: It’s linked to higher blood pressure, shorter lives, depression and sleeping problems.

And when we consider that 700,000 people have died of the coronavirus alone in the U.S., the number of those grieving is now easily in the millions.

Toni Miles, professor at University of Georgia’s College of Public Health, says it’s high time for a collective response. She and a friend had a conversation in 2012 about the public health consequences of losing a loved one and realized the impacts of bereavement were vastly understudied.

Since then, she and a team of researchers completed the first-ever state-wide survey of recent bereavement in Georgia. Data was collected before the pandemic between 2018 and 2019.

“It turns out that 45% of the population aged 18 and over were newly bereaved in that two-year window,” she says. That’s nearly one in two people in the state, and the data doesn’t take into account kids under 18, she says.

In another study’s 50 and older health and retirement cohort, her team found bereavement increases one’s risk of dying two-fold — and that risk never decreases. For the same cohort, bereavement also elevates one’s risk of needing an overnight hospital stay.

And in general, “people who are bereaved are one and a half times more likely to visit a doctor 20 or more times in the two-year period after bereavement,” she says.

Statistically, people who experience bereavement don’t get sick all at once. A habit or two changes over time that can lead to poor health outcomes, she says.

In Georgia, binge drinking increased in grieving young men, she says. If Miles was screening a young man after the death of someone close, for instance, she says she would ask about shifts in alcohol consumption. Heavy drinking can influence hospitalization, death and “all kinds of outcomes that you might not believe are related to bereavement but are,” she notes.

Grief can also sway behaviors — like if an asthmatic person ceases to treat their asthma after the death of a loved one, she says.

The age group most likely to report bereavement are people between 30 and 55 years old, she says. Large scale health costs associated with bereavement can pose a huge challenge to this age group. Lack of sleep could cause a car accident, or an old smoking habit could reemerge, she says.

To address the hidden cost of bereavement cost and collect more data, Miles says society needs to readjust how we view loss.

Death of a friend is just as traumatic as losing a family member, she says.

“We really do need to have more empathy recognizing that if someone says ‘someone died that I’m really close to,’ we need to take a moment and find out what they have lost in addition to losing that person,” she says.

To respond to this crisis, Miles is pushing individual states to include an annual survey on bereavement with their other yearly questionnaires on topics like seatbelt use and smoking, she says. Collecting data can in turn inform policy, she says, and allow communities to figure out costs associated with the need.

Miles has been passionate about understanding the fact of bereavement following death since her time as a medical resident during the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s.

“I saw young men die who were my age every day for six months,” she says. “And that process was just so damaging. It took me a while to get my humanity back.”

In the past decade, she’s lost about six relatives to different circumstances. She says she’s experienced firsthand the “meanness” that comes after someone dies.

“If we don’t, as a culture, understand that people suffer when they lose someone and not just make disparaging remarks about what killed them,” she says, “we’re not going to solve this problem.”

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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