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Immunity and crises, large and small.

Immunity and Crises, Large and Small

Women whose marriages have recently broken up show poorer immune system function than do married women. This observation is the latest in a series of reports linking distressing events in a person's life to depressed immune function (SN: 5/24/80, p. 335).

Recent research by behavioral scientist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and immunologist Ronald Glaser of Ohio State University in Columbus has explored the relationship between marital status and immunity. Earlier epidemiologic studies had indicated that separated and divorced women have increased mortality rates for some diseases.

The Ohio scientists have examined immune function in two groups of 38 women each. The women in one group were married; those in the other group had separated from their husbands during the last six years. The groups were matched for a variety of socioeconomic factors.

On several different measures of how well immune system cells are functioning, the separated and divorced women showed lower responses than the married women, Kiecolt-Glaser reported this week in Philadelphia at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Within the group of separated and divorced women, those with a continued feeling of attachment to the husband or ex-husband-- whether it was persistent anger or longing --reported greater feelings of depression and showed poorer immune system function.

Among the married women, those who reported dissatisfaction with their marriages showed a poorer response on three out of six measures of immune function than did women who rated their marriages more favorably. The less happily married women also reported more feelings of depression.

Life's stresses do not have to be as great as the breakup of a marriage to affect the immune system. Kiecolt-Glaser also reports immune system changes occurring among medical students during the school year. In five different studies, employing 20 different assays, she and her colleagues have shown a decrease in immune system activity during medical school final examinations.

Among the immune functions suppressed during exams is natural killer cell activity. This activity is thought to be important as a defense against viruses and cancer. In addition, production of interferon, which stimulates natural killer cells, plummeted during final exams. Kiecolt-Glaser reports that she and her colleagues have also found that these periods of stress-related immunosuppression among medical students are associated with episodes of infectious disease

"The heightened distress regularly found in our medical student samples during examinations is probably quite comparable to that elicited by everyday events that are frequently experienced [by the general population]--for example, the several days of frenzied activity that frequently precede vacations,' she says. "If emotional distress in these situations is comparable to that of medical students during examinations, then similar immunologic changes may be expected.'

Among both the separated and divorced women and the anxious medical students, changes in eating and sleeping habits do not explain the observed changes in immune function, Kiecolt-Glaser says.

If distress interferes with immune function, reductions in distress might enhance immunity, the Ohio scientists reasoned. In both medical students and an elderly population, they have observed that relaxation exercises increase measurable aspects of immune function.

"Transient immunosuppression can be produced by heightened and sustained distress,' Kiecolt-Glaser concludes. But whether this condition leads to disease depends on factors including psychological resources, prior health and exposure to infectious diseases. She suggests that distress-related immunosuppression has its most important consequences in elderly individuals and others who have preexisting deficiencies in immune function.
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Title Annotation:stress linked to depressed immune function
Author:Miller, Julie Ann
Publication:Science News
Date:May 31, 1986
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