SAN FRANCISCO — The stress of a bad marriage, separation or divorce can affect a woman's immune system and increase the chances that she will become ill, researchers said.
"Those are the very people who need to be the most concerned about nutrition, sleep and taking care of themselves," researcher Janice Kiecolt-Glaser of Ohio State University told a conference here.
She spoke at a symposium at the 7th Annual Scientific Session of the Society of Behavioral Medicine in San Francisco. The symposium focused on psychoneuroimmunology, a relatively new science that studies the effects of psychological and sociological factors on physical health and the immune and hormonal systems.
Kiecolt-Glaser, along with her husband, epidemiologist Ronald Glaser, recently completed a yearlong study of 76 women in which their T-cell counts were tracked.
Fight Diseased Cells
The researchers said different T-cells either help or suppress B-cells, which are important to the immune system because they help fight diseased cells.
Researchers found that among separated and divorced women, health and immunological functions were affected by how long the women had been separated and how attached they were to their ex-husbands.
The longer the separation or the more attached these women were to their former spouses, the more depressed they were and the fewer helper T-cells they had, Kiecolt-Glaser said.
Kiecolt-Glaser said recently separated women had an average of 6% fewer helper T-cells than married women.
May Be More at Risk
Although women with fewer helper T-cells did not necessarily exhibit more illness, Kiecolt-Glaser said their future health may be more at risk because they could be more susceptible to viruses or infectious diseases.
In another presentation, Mary Jasnoski of Harvard University said relaxation techniques coupled with imagery helped people labeled "high imagery absorbers" increase the types of T-cells that help the immune system function and thus help ward off disease.
High imagery absorbers are people who respond with intense sensory experiences to mental events such as fantasies, movies or books, she said.
They were told to imagine their white blood cells, strong and powerful, killing off weak and confused cold or influenza cells.
"It's very preliminary data," Jasnoski said. "The most important implication is that we really need to assess who it is we're trying to treat in order to decide what is going to be the most effective treatment."
Margaret Kemeny of UCLA conducted a six-month study of 36 people on coping strategies and which ones best protect patients from having recurrences of genital herpes.
She said people who gathered information about their condition and tried to deal with it had longer recurrence-free periods. Those who focused on their emotional reactions showed negative changes in their immune system.
Kemeny said the people who focused on their emotions showed an average 8% decrease in the number of cytotoxic cells, which kill virus infected cells.
"It may be that actually facing up and dealing with problems has a positive influence on health, while not dealing with the problem directly may have negative consequences," she said.