Dietz et al.

Cortisol Response to Social Stress in Parentally Bereaved Youth
Dietz LJ, Stoyak S, Melham N, Porta G, Matthews KA, Walker M, Brent, DA. 

The death of a parent is one of the most stressful events that a child can experience, and is associated with increased risk for psychiatric illness and impairment.  Less is known about the effects of parental bereavement on physiological systems that initiate and regulate responses to perceived threat.  In a study published in Biological Psychiatry, Drs. Dietz, Brent, and colleagues examined the association between parental bereavement and cortisol response to social stress five years after parental death.  Salivary cortisol from bereaved and non-bereaved youth (n = 181) were collected before and after a series of social stress tasks, involving  public speaking and math calculations in front of an unfamiliar adult.  Bereaved youth showed higher overall levels of cortisol in response to stress, but at the same time showed a blunted pattern of response compared to non-bereaved controls. Within the bereaved group, youth who lost a parent to suicide showed a markedly blunted response to stress. These findings persisted after adjusting for the higher rates of psychiatric disorder in bereaved youth and their parents. The death of a parent may have long-term effects on responses to stress that could predispose bereaved youth to both mental and physical health sequelae.

This study was published online in the October 2012 issue of Biological Psychiatry. Click here for a link to the abstract.

Laura J. Dietz, PhD, Sam Stoyak, BS, Nadine Melham, PhD, Porta G, Karen A. Matthews, PhD, Walker M, David A. Brent, MD  (Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh)