Physiologic Markers of Chronic Stress in Premenopausal, Middle-Aged Women

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Abstract

Objective

The purpose of this study was to identify physiological markers of chronic stress in middle-aged women that can be assessed simply and are thus feasible for introduction into large-scale, epidemiologic studies of aging.

Methods

Subjects were 40 nonsmoking, premenopausal women between the ages of 42 and 52 years, 20 of whom were chronically stressed because of undergoing a divorce or separation and 20 of whom were nonstressed because of being in stable marriages. Stressed and nonstressed women were matched for age, ethnicity, and education. Hypotheses focused on morning and evening salivary cortisol, overnight urinary catecholamines, cortisol, and testosterone, and platelet catecholamines.

Results

Relative to the nonstressed control subjects, the stressed women had elevated evening (9 PM) salivary cortisols, a finding that was observed on both days (mixed effects model: effect = 0.44; se = 0.14, p = .003). Support for the importance of the HPA axis was provided by the observation that the stressed women had less suppression of salivary cortisol in response to low-dose dexamethasone. Contrary to our hypothesis that stressed women would have lower overnight urinary testosterone, they had higher testosterone on day 2 (stressed = 0.76 ng/mg, nonstressed = 0.55 ng/mg;p = .04). Post hoc repeated measures analysis revealed a significant group effect over all time periods of observation (F = 5.48, p = .03, df = 1,18). Stressed women had a nonsignificant trend toward elevated platelet catecholamines. No association was found for overnight urinary catecholamines or cortisol.

Conclusions

Promising markers of marital upheaval in middle-aged women are evening salivary cortisol and urinary testosterone from a first morning void. Replication of these findings with the same and different chronic stressors and with women of older ages is needed. The low cost and minimal burden of these potential markers makes it feasible to introduce them into large-scale epidemiologic studies of health in aging women.

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