Older Women Face Higher Risk of Psychiatric Disorders After Loved One's Sudden Death

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • The menopausal transition often can lead to what is called the “menopause blues.” This depression can be triggered by hormonal fluctuations, stress, body image, sexuality and infertility, as well as aging.


    While many women periodically experience a depressed mood (which is common and normally brief), the “blues” also may emerge if your depressed state is a symptom of medical or psychological issues. This type of depressive reaction is usually short-term and often doesn’t require treatment. However, if you don’t remain aware of what’s going on, this type of reaction can progress to clinical depression. And interestingly, this type of reaction can be triggered by a woman’s reaction to major life events.

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    That brings me to a new study that indicates that one of those life events --– the unexpected death of a loved one –can also trigger a variety of psychiatric disorders, especially in people who are middle-age and older. Furthermore, these disorders can emerge in people who don’t have a history of mental illness.


    Researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health analyzed interview data from 27,534 adults in the United States who participated in the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Approximately 25 percent of the participants described an unexpected death of a loved one as being the most traumatic event that had occurred in their lives. Twenty-two percent of the study participants who had experienced 11 or more traumatic events during their lifetime still said the sudden loss of a loved one was the most traumatic experience.


    As we hit middle-age, the risk of developing mania after an unexpected loss of a loved one increases significantly. People who are 30 years old and above have double the risk of developing new-onset mania after an unexpected death of a loved one. The researchers’ analysis also found that people who were between the ages of 50-54 or who were 70 years of age and older had more than a five-fold increased risk of developing mania when faced with this type of sudden loss.


    People who experienced this type of loss also were found to be more likely to experience a major depressive episode, panic disorder or posttraumatic stress disorder. When experienced at a later age, these older adults also had higher incidents of manic episodes, phobias, alcohol use disorders and generalized anxiety disorder.


     “Clinically, our results highlight the importance of considering a possible role for loss of close personal relationships through death in assessment of psychiatric disorders. When someone loses a close personal relationship, even late in life, there is a profound effect on sense of self and self-reflection,” said Dr. Katherine Keyes, an assistant professor of epidemiology and the study’s principal investigator. “These data indicate that, even in adults with no history of psychiatric disorders, it is also a vulnerable risk period for the onset of a potentially disabling psychiatric disorder.”


  • Therefore, it’s really important to take the appropriate steps if you’ve suffered this type of traumatic loss and feel like you’re suffering from a depressive state or one of these other issues. First of all, I’d encourage you to talk to your doctor or seek professional guidance. These professionals can recommend specific therapies and prescribe medications that can help.

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    You can also consider making some specific lifestyle decisions. These include:

    • Participating in activities that can help you feel better, such as going to a movie, getting together with friends or participating in a hobby.
    • Taking part in exercise, which can help you relieve the stress and sadness that you’re feeling.
    • Learning to realize that it’s going to take time for your mood to improve.
    • Postponing important decisions until your mental status is stabilized.
    • Considering herbal remedies such as St. John’s wort that may ease mild to moderate depression.
    • Be willing to break large tasks into smaller chunks and prioritize what needs to be done. Give yourself permission to do what you are able to do each day.
    • Find ways to embrace joy, whether through hanging out with kids at a playground, taking your dog to the dog park or watching a comedic television show or movie.

    Primary Sources for Shareposts:


    Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. (2014). Study links unexpected death of a love done with onset of psychiatric disorders.


    Keyes, K. M., et al. (2014). The burden of loss; Unexpected death of a loved one and psychiatric disorders across the life course in a national study. The American Journal of Psychiatry.


    The North American Menopause Society. (ND). Depression & menopause.

Published On: June 11, 2014