The Association Between Hair Cortisol, Hair Cortisone, and Cognitive Function in a Population-Based Cohort of Older Adults: Results From The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing

J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2020 Jan 20;75(2):257-265. doi: 10.1093/gerona/gly258.


Experimental evidence to date largely supports an association between the stress hormone cortisol and cognitive performance. Older adults, in particular, may be vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of prolonged increases in cortisol; however, the assessment of chronic hormone levels has previously been challenging. Hair cortisol analysis has advantages over other cortisol metrics for this purpose as it facilitates the assessment of total hormone secretion over several months. Cortisol and cortisone were measured in the scalp hair of 1,876 older adults from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing. Participants underwent a battery of cognitive tests assessing global function, memory, executive function, and processing speed. After adjustment for hair characteristics, demographics, metabolic risk factors, cardiovascular conditions, and depression, regression analysis revealed an inverse relationship of hair glucocorticoids to immediate (cortisol: β = -.12, p = .032; cortisone: β = -.021, p = .036) and delayed (cortisol: β = -.13, p = .003; cortisone: β = -.23, p = .006) word recall performance. They were also associated with more errors on the Mini-Mental State Examination (cortisol: incidence rate ratio (IRR) = 1.06, p = .008; cortisone: IRR = 1.14, p = .002) and Montreal Cognitive Assessment (cortisone: IRR = 1.06, p = .015). Higher hair glucocorticoids are inversely associated with memory and global cognition in a population-based sample of older adults. Future work should explore the prognostic significance of these findings.

Keywords: Global cognition; Glucocorticoids; Memory; Stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cognition*
  • Cortisone / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Geriatric Assessment
  • Hair / chemistry*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Ireland / epidemiology
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Surveys and Questionnaires


  • Cortisone
  • Hydrocortisone