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University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

UPMC Media Relations

​Sleep May Have Negative Impact On Immune System

PITTSBURGH, January 19, 1998 — Research done at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic provides evidence that disruptions in sleep may weaken the immune system of elderly widows and widowers. The study, published today in the scientific journal Psychosomatic Medicine, is proof that maintaining good sleep is important for the elderly to stay healthy.

The study’s primary author, Martica Hall, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow, in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said the findings show the importance of developing interventions that reduce illnesses caused by stress-related sleep disruptions.

The UPMC researchers studied 29 individuals seeking treatment for bereavement-related depression. Each participant spent three nights in a sleep lab and had blood samples drawn after the second or third night of sleep. Analysis of the blood samples revealed that those with disrupted sleep had decreased levels of natural killer cells (NKCs) in their blood.

NKCs are part of the body’s immune system and take their name from the way they help destroy illness-causing cells. A decreased NKC count indicates a weakened immune system and a body more vulnerable to illness.

Dr. Hall said that although sleep disruptions associated with bereavement or other stressful life events may play an important role in illness susceptibility, it is not yet known whether doctors can improve a patient’s health by improving their sleep.

"We know that it is better to treat the underlying problem, bereavement-related depression, rather than to simply treat the symptom, disturbed sleep, with a sleeping pill," Dr. Hall continued. "The potential health benefits of treating bereavement-related depression, including its sleep disruptions, is one of the research avenues we’re now following."

For more information about psychiatry or to learn about current research studies, visit the UPMC's Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic Web site.



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