Giving up on life can have serious consequences and even lead to death in just a few days, according to scientists from Portsmouth University. Psychogenic death or ‘give-up-itis’ is a real medical condition and has been explored more thoroughly in the new research.
The study found that people can die in as little as three days in the wake of a traumatic life event, if they cannot see a way to overcome it. The term ‘give-up-itis’ was invented during the Korean War, when those being held prisoner ceased to speak, stopped eating and died quickly.
Dr Leach, who led the study, explored the hypothesis that when a person feels beaten by life, brain activity changes. He looked into the effect this has on motivation and the serious consequences of a lack of it to care for oneself.
He said: “Psychogenic death is real. It isn't suicide, it isn't linked to depression, but the act of giving up on life and dying usually within days, is a very real condition often linked to severe trauma.”
This is something particularly important to be aware with in the elderly, as losing a loved one, such as a husband or wife, or even having a fall, can be the trauma that becomes the catalyst. Relatives should look out for tell-tale signs in such circumstances.
Dr Leach has identified five distinct stages that mark the progression of the condition. They can occur over the course of a few days, weeks or months, but can lead to a very serious situation. The first stage is social withdrawal, which can easily go unnoticed.
This develops into step two, which is losing interest in looking after themselves. By the third stage, they have no ability to take initiative and refuse to make decisions. The fourth step is the most startling, as the patient becomes incontinent and will not clean themselves up. It is followed by death, the fifth and final stage.
Give-up-itis could be the result of a change in the part of the brain known as the frontal-subcortical circuit. This is the area responsible for goal-directed behaviour, so a malfunction here could have dramatic effects.
Dr Leach said that the best way to intervene in a case of someone heading towards psychogenic death is to encourage a release of dopamine. The feel-good chemical can combat apathy, so it’s a matter of guiding a patient towards it.
This can be achieved in one of two ways. The first is through physical activity and could tap into a passion that they had in earlier life. The second is to feel at least partially in control of a situation, which can be difficult, but is not entirely out of reach.
Dr Leach added: “Reversing the give-up-itis slide towards death tends to come when a survivor finds or recovers a sense of choice, of having some control, and tends to be accompanied by that person licking their wounds and taking a renewed interest in life.”