Self-esteem change and diurnal cortisol secretion in older adulthood

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2014 Mar;41:111-20. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.12.010. Epub 2013 Dec 22.


Objective: Research suggests that self-esteem can decline in older adulthood. This process could remove a buffer that normally protects individuals against distress-related changes in cortisol secretion. We examined this possibility by testing whether change in self-esteem would predict alterations in cortisol secretion, particularly among older adults who reported high levels of depressive symptoms or perceived stress.

Methods: 147 older adults (aged 60+) completed three days of diurnal cortisol measurements at three different time points, namely every two years over a total period of four years. Measures of self-esteem, depressive symptoms, and perceived stress were assessed at T1 and T2. Potential demographic and health-related confounds were measured at baseline (partnership status, SES, mortality risk index, and medication).

Results: Linear regression models indicated that a decline in self-esteem from T1 to T2 predicted elevated cortisol output (AUCG) from T2 to T3, F (1, 137)=8.09, β=-.25, R(2)=.05, p=.005. Interaction analyses revealed that this association was particularly strong among participants who experienced higher T1 or T2 levels of depressive symptoms or perceived stress, +1SD: βs=-.34 to -.51, ps<.001, but not significant among their counterparts who reported relatively lower levels of depressive symptoms or perceived stress, -1SD: βs=.03 to 11, ps>.43.

Conclusions: Declines in self-esteem represent a mechanism that contributes to higher levels of diurnal cortisol secretion if older adults experience psychological distress. Increases in self-esteem, by contrast, can ameliorate older adults' cortisol regulation in stressful circumstances.

Keywords: Depressive symptoms; Diurnal cortisol secretion; Older adulthood; Perceived stress; Self-esteem.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / metabolism*
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Depression / metabolism*
  • Depression / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Risk Factors
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Self Concept*
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*


  • Hydrocortisone