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The Longitudinal Relationship Between Cortisol Responses to Mental Stress and Leukocyte Telomere Attrition

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posted on 2022-12-16, 09:30 authored by Andrew Steptoe, Mark Hamer, Jue Lin, Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Jorge D. Erusalimsky



Chronic psychological stress has been associated with shorter telomeres, but the underlying mechanisms are poorly understood. One possibility is that the neuroendocrine responses to stress exposure are involved.


To test the hypothesis that greater cortisol responsivity to acute stressors predicts more rapid telomere attrition.


We measured salivary cortisol responses to 2 challenging behavioral tasks. Leukocyte telomere length was measured at the time of mental stress testing and 3 years later.


We studied 411 initially healthy men and women aged 54 to 76 years.

Main outcome measure:

Leukocyte telomere length.


Cortisol responses to this protocol were small; we divided participants into cortisol responders (n = 156) and nonresponders (n = 255) using a criterion (≥20% increase in cortisol concentration) previously shown to predict increases in cardiovascular disease risk. There was no significant association between cortisol responsivity and baseline telomere length, although cortisol responders tended to have somewhat shorter telomeres (β = −0.061; standard error, 0.049). But cortisol responders had shorter telomeres and more rapid telomere attrition than nonresponders on follow-up, after controlling statistically for age, sex, socioeconomic status, smoking, time of day of stress , and baseline telomere length (β = −0.10; standard error, 0.046; P = 0.029). The association was maintained after additional control for cardiovascular risk factors (β = −0.11; P = 0.031). The difference between cortisol responders and nonresponders was equivalent to approximately 2 years in aging.


These findings suggest that cortisol responsivity may mediate, in part, the relationship between psychological stress and cellular aging.


This research was funded by the British Heart Foundation (RG/05/006), the Medical Research Council, UK (G0601647), and the Bernard and Barbro Fund (to E.H.B.).


Published in

The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism


Endocrine Society


  • VoR (Version of Record)


Steptoe, A., Hamer, M., Lin, J., Blackburn, E. and Erusalimsky, J. (2017) 'The longitudinal relationship between cortisol responses to mental stress and leukocyte telomere attrition', Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 102(3), pp.962-969. doi: 10.1210/jc.2016-3035

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Cardiff Met Affiliation

  • Cardiff School of Sport and Health Sciences

Cardiff Met Authors

Jorge D. Erusalimsky

Cardiff Met Research Centre/Group

  • Cellular Senescence and Pathophysiology

Copyright Holder

  • © The Authors


  • en

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