Dysfunction of the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis and its influence on aging: the role of the hypothalamus

Sci Rep. 2023 Apr 27;13(1):6866. doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-33922-5.


As part of the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, the hypothalamus exerts pivotal influence on metabolic and endocrine homeostasis. With age, these processes are subject to considerable change, resulting in increased prevalence of physical disability and cardiac disorders. Yet, research on the aging human hypothalamus is lacking. To assess detailed hypothalamic microstructure in middle adulthood, 39 healthy participants (35-65 years) underwent comprehensive structural magnetic resonance imaging. In addition, we studied HPA axis dysfunction proxied by hair cortisol and waist circumference as potential risk factors for hypothalamic alterations. We provide first evidence of regionally different hypothalamic microstructure, with age effects in its anterior-superior subunit, a critical area for HPA axis regulation. Further, we report that waist circumference was related to increased free water and decreased iron content in this region. In age, hair cortisol was additionally associated with free water content, such that older participants with higher cortisol levels were more vulnerable to free water content increase than younger participants. Overall, our results suggest no general age-related decline in hypothalamic microstructure. Instead, older individuals could be more susceptible to risk factors of hypothalamic decline especially in the anterior-superior subregion, including HPA axis dysfunction, indicating the importance of endocrine and stress management in age.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aging / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone* / metabolism
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System* / metabolism
  • Hypothalamus / diagnostic imaging
  • Hypothalamus / metabolism
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / metabolism
  • Water / metabolism


  • Hydrocortisone
  • Water