Objective: Despite several studies indicating that social gradients are predictive of cardiovascular mortality, the pathogenetic mechanisms remain incompletely understood.
Research methods and procedures: A population sample of 51-year-old men (N = 284) was divided into a socioeconomic gradient with manual laborers, civil servants, and university graduates. Anthropometric measurements were registered. Cortisol concentrations were measured in saliva, collected repeatedly during an ordinary working day, and a low-dose dexamethasone suppression test was performed.
Results: Lower socioeconomic status was associated with visceral obesity and higher cortisol values in relation to perceived stress. However, total cortisol secretion over the day of study was not elevated. The regulation of cortisol secretion showed less plasticity and dexamethasone inhibition was less efficient in the men in the lower socioeconomic status group than in those with a higher socioeconomic status. These are known consequences of long term stress. Longer duration in low socioeconomic conditions seemed to worsen these phenomena.
Discussion: It was concluded that a low socioeconomic status is associated with perturbed cortisol secretion, which is elevated in relation to perceived stress. When the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is subjected to prolonged increases in cortisol elicited by chronic stress, the regulation of cortisol secretion is affected, indicating neuroendocrine dysregulations. These observations may provide a means for understanding the association of socioeconomic impairments with visceral obesity and the social inequality in risk for prevalent and serious diseases.