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Stress. 2017 Mar;20(2):140-148. doi: 10.1080/10253890.2017.1289168. Epub 2017 Feb 21.

Stress in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, and cortisol levels in older age.

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a Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, University of Edinburgh , Edinburgh, UK.
b Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, University of Edinburgh , Edinburgh, UK.
c Department of Psychology , University of Edinburgh , Edinburgh, UK.
d School of Natural Sciences and Psychology, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, UK.
e Edinburgh Delirium Research Group, Geriatric Medicine Unit , University of Edinburgh , Edinburgh, UK.
f Endocrinology Unit , University of Edinburgh , Edinburgh, UK.


The glucocorticoid hypothesis suggests that overexposure to stress may cause permanent upregulation of cortisol. Stress in youth may therefore influence cortisol levels even in older age. Using data from the 6-Day Sample, we investigated the effects of high stress in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood - as well as individual variables contributing to these measures; parental loss, social deprivation, school and home moves, illness, divorce and job instability - upon cortisol levels at age 77 years. Waking, waking +45 min (peak) and evening salivary cortisol samples were collected from 159 participants, and the 150 who were not using steroid medications were included in this study. After correcting for multiple comparisons, the only significant association was between early-adulthood job instability and later-life peak cortisol levels. After excluding participants with dementia or possible mild cognitive impairment, early-adulthood high stress showed significant associations with lower evening and mean cortisol levels, suggesting downregulation by stress, but these results did not survive correction for multiple comparisons. Overall, our results do not provide strong evidence of a relationship between stress in youth and later-life cortisol levels, but do suggest that some more long-term stressors, such as job instability, may indeed produce lasting upregulation of cortisol, persisting into the mid-to-late seventies.


6-Day Sample; Childhood stress; adolescent stress; early-adulthood stress; older-age cortisol

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