Older adults with high levels of cortisol have an increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
Cortisol is an important hormone in the body that is secreted by the adrenal glands in response to physical or mental stress. At an optimal positive stress level referred to as eustress, cortisol is involved in
- Proper glucose metabolism
- Regulation of blood pressure
- Insulin release for blood sugar maintanence
- Immune function
- Inflammatory response
Small increases of cortisol, as in the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, have some positive effects:
- A quick burst of energy for survival reasons
- Heightened memory functions
- A burst of increased immunity
- Lower sensitivity to pain
The effects of cortisol are intended to help the body recover from stress and regain a status of homeostasis.
Higher levels of cortisol in the bloodstream (distress) and prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol (like those associated with chronic stress) have been shown to have negative effects, such as:
- Impaired cognitive performance
- Suppressed thyroid function
- Blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia
- Decreased bone density
- Decrease in muscle tissue
- Higher blood pressure
- Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body,
- Increased abdominal fat, which is associated with a greater amount of health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body.
High levels of cortisol strongly predict cardiovascular death among both persons with and without pre-existing cardiovascular disease
In a prospective cohort study of 861 people aged 65 years and older, researchers led by Nicole Vogelzangs of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam found that 183 participants died within six years of the beginning of the study. Urinary cortisol levels of subjects were measured at the beginning of the study and cause of death was ascertained from death certificates. The researchers also found that urinary cortisol did not increase the risk of non-cardiovascular mortality but did increase cardiovascular mortality risk. The third of the subjects with the highest urinary cortisol had a five-fold increased risk of dying of cardiovascular disease.
The specific link with cardiovascular mortality, and not other causes of mortality, suggests that high cortisol levels might be particularly damaging to the cardiovascular system.
N. Vogelzangs, A. T. F. Beekman, Y. Milaneschi, S. Bandinelli, L. Ferrucci, B. W. J. H. Penninx. Urinary Cortisol and Six-Year Risk of All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, published online on August 25, 2010