Marital status as a predictor of diurnal salivary cortisol levels and slopes in a community sample of healthy adults

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2017 Apr:78:68-75. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2017.01.016. Epub 2017 Jan 19.


Married people tend to be healthier than both the previously (bereaved, divorced, and separated) and never married, but the mechanisms through which this occurs remain unclear. To this end, research has increasingly focused on how psychological stress experienced by unmarried versus married individuals may differentially impact physiological systems related to health. One key system that is modulated by stress is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, of which cortisol is a key hormonal product. Increased cortisol production and disruption of cortisol's daily rhythm have been linked to poorer health outcomes. This study examined the association between current marital status and these two indices of cortisol in a community sample of 572 healthy men and women aged 21-55. It also tested whether marriage buffers against the effect of stress (perceived stress by marital status interaction) on cortisol production. Participants provided salivary cortisol samples during waking hours on three nonconsecutive separate days to calculate diurnal cortisol levels and slopes. Married individuals had lower cortisol levels than either their never married or previously married counterparts. Differences in cortisol levels were due at least in part to currently married individuals having a more rapid decline in cortisol through the afternoon hours compared to individuals who were never married (but not those who were previously married). Furthermore, there was an interaction between perceived stress and marital status in predicting cortisol levels. Specifically, higher stress was associated with higher cortisol levels for previously married individuals but not for the married or never married. The results of this study support cortisol as one candidate mechanism accounting for the association of marital status and health.

Keywords: Diurnal slopes; Marital status; Salivary cortisol; Stress buffering.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology*
  • Male
  • Marital Status*
  • Middle Aged
  • Personality / physiology
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology*
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Young Adult


  • Hydrocortisone