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Stress Hormone, Cortisol Tied to Frailty

Update Date: Feb 20, 2014 01:18 PM EST

Stress can negatively or positively affect one's overall health. Several studies have found that when stress is poorly managed, it can be highly debilitating. In a new study, researchers examined the effects of the stress hormone, cortisol on seniors. The researchers reported that varying levels of cortisol throughout the day could contribute to frailty in older people.

"Our results suggest a link between disrupted cortisol regulation and loss of muscle mass and strength, as the underlying pathophysiology of frailty," said study author, Hamimatunnisa Johar, a Ph.D. student at Helmholtz Zentrum München. "In a clinical setting assessment of frailty can be time-consuming, and our findings show measurements of cortisol may offer a feasible alternative."

For this study, the research team analyzed data on 745 participants who were between the ages of 65 and 90. The researchers collected saliva samples at three different points throughout the day in order to measure cortisol levels. The samples were taken upon awakening, half an hour after awakening and then during the evening. The researchers measured frailty based on whether or not the seniors experienced three or more of these symptoms, which included exhaustion, physical inactivity, low walking speed, weakness, or weight loss. Weakness was measured via grip strength and significant weight loss had to surpass around 11 pounds within the past six months.

The researchers found that cortisol levels were generally lower during the morning and increased by the evening. The researchers concluded that higher cortisol levels were tied to frailty. Frailty has been associated to an increased risk for institutionalization and mortality. This study suggests that keeping stress low for seniors is very important.

"Cortisol typically follows a distinct daily pattern with the highest level in the morning and the lowest basal level at night," said Karl-Heinz Ladwig, PhD, MD, of Helmholtz Zentrum München in Neuherberg, Germany and an author of the study. "Our findings showed dysregulated cortisol secretion, as featured by a smaller morning to evening cortisol level ratio, was significantly associated with frailty status."

The findings were published in the Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

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