High levels of cortisol — the so-called stress hormone — have been associated with cardiovascular disease in some studies, but not in others. This may be because measuring cortisol in blood or saliva at one point in time may pick up acute stress, but it fails to account for long-term stress.
Now Dutch researchers have assessed cortisol levels over several months by analyzing scalp hair samples. Their results appeared online in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
The researchers measured the cortisol content in hair samples corresponding to roughly three months of growth from 283 older men and women, average age 75. They also gathered self-reported data about coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral artery disease, Type 2 diabetes, lung disease, cancer and osteoporosis.
Compared with those in the lowest quarter for cortisol, those in the highest quarter had about three times the risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. There was no association between cortisol levels and the risk for lung disease, cancer or osteoporosis.
The senior authors, Dr. Laura Manenschijn and Dr. Elisabeth van Rossum of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, acknowledge that they had no data on blood pressure or lipid status, which may have affected the results.
“The increased risk,” Dr. van Rossum said, “is comparable to traditional risk factors — hypertension, abdominal obesity. This is in the same range.”