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High Stress and Cortisol Linked to Cardiovascular Mortality


It’s official: older adults who have high levels of the stress hormone cortisol are at greater risk of cardiovascular death. That’s the word from a new study to be published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced in the adrenal glands, and its effects are designed to help the body recover from stressful situations. It is often referred to as a stress hormone because the body releases it when prompted by different stressors, such as fasting, exercising, and emotional stress. The more chronic and/or intense the stress, the more cortisol the body releases.

It’s been shown that chronic stress can contribute to many harmful physical effects. High cortisol levels, for example, cause fat to be deposited deep in the abdomen, which can develop into or increase obesity. Elevated levels of cortisol have also been associated with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and elevated glucose levels.

Relation Between Cardiovascular Disease, Cortisol and Mortality

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According to Nicole Vogelzangs, PhD, of VU University Medical Center in The Netherlands and the lead author of the new study, previous research has indicated that cortisol may increase the risk of cardiovascular death, but the hypothesis had not been tested directly. Scientists with the new study have done just that.

“The results of our study clearly show that cortisol levels in a general older population predict cardiovascular death, but not other causes of mortality,” says Vogelzangs. To arrive at this finding, the researchers evaluated 861 adults aged 65 years and older. Cortisol levels were measured in urine at the beginning of the study and about six years later, by which time 183 participants had died.

Investigators discovered that urinary cortisol increased the risk of cardiovascular death but not non-cardiovascular mortality. One-third of the participants who had the highest urinary cortisol levels had a fivefold increased risk of dying of cardiovascular disease.

Vogelzangs noted that their study “significantly adds evidence to the belief that cortisol can be damaging to the cardiovascular system.” These results serve as a reminder to older adults, and everyone, that high stress can elevate cortisol levels and raise the risk of cardiovascular mortality.

Endocrine Society