The relationship of adverse childhood experiences, hair cortisol, C-reactive protein, and polygenic susceptibility with older adults' psychological distress during the COVID-19 pandemic

Mol Psychiatry. 2022 Dec;27(12):5038-5048. doi: 10.1038/s41380-022-01805-2. Epub 2022 Oct 5.


Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are linked to poorer mental health outcomes, and growing evidence implicates biological and genetic pathways from early adversity to psychopathology. However, little is known about the relationship of ACEs and their underlying biological and genetic mechanisms with older people's mental health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. We tested the associations of ACEs, hair cortisol, C-reactive protein (CRP), and polygenic scores (PGS) with depression, anxiety, and loneliness among older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic, accounting for the potential interplay of ACEs with biological and genetic risk markers. Data were drawn from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, a prospective cohort study of older adults living in England. Retrospective information on ACEs were collected in 2006/7, while CRP and hair cortisol were measured at wave 6 (2012/13). Psychological distress was assessed before the pandemic (2018-19) and at two COVID-19 assessments in 2020 (June-July and November-December). Associations were tested on 2050 participants using linear/logistic regression models adjusted for pre-pandemic outcome measures and mixed-effect models to assess changes before and during the pandemic. The results showed that ACEs were associated with higher levels of depression (OR = 2.55[95%CI:1.81,3.59]) anxiety (OR = 1.84[95%CI:1.13,3.01]), and loneliness (b = 0.28[95%CI:0.14,0.42]) during the pandemic. Hair cortisol was related to an increased risk of depression (OR = 1.15[95%CI:1.04,1.26]), and CRP was associated with greater loneliness scores (b = 0.16[95%CI:0.03,0.30]). The relationship between cortisol and psychological distress was larger among participants with ACEs (e.g., ORdepression = 1.07[95%CI:1.00,1.14]). Further, individuals with high CRP experienced greater increases in feelings of loneliness from before to during the pandemic, compared to those with lower CRP levels (interaction effect=0.23; 95%CI:0.1-0.37). Individuals with 2+ ACEs experienced greater increases in depressive symptoms compared to those with none (interaction effect=2.09; 95%CI:1.1-3.98). Higher levels of hair cortisol were also related to worse changes in depressive symptoms across timepoints (interaction effect=1.84;95%CI:1.41-2.41). These results highlight the lasting impact of biosocial vulnerabilities on older adults' mental health responses to new environmental stressors. They also implicate biological mechanisms in the pathophysiology of later-life psychological distress.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences*
  • Aged
  • C-Reactive Protein
  • COVID-19*
  • Depression / psychology
  • Hair
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Pandemics
  • Prospective Studies
  • Psychological Distress*
  • Retrospective Studies


  • Hydrocortisone
  • C-Reactive Protein