Sex differences in endocrine and psychological responses to psychosocial stress in healthy elderly subjects and the impact of a 2-week dehydroepiandrosterone treatment

J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1998 May;83(5):1756-61. doi: 10.1210/jcem.83.5.4758.


Evidence from animal as well as human studies has suggested that significant sex differences exist in hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) activity. As gonadal steroids could be important modulators of HPA sex differences, stress responses were investigated in subjects of advanced age after dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) or placebo treatment. After a 2-week treatment with 50 mg DHEA daily or placebo, 75 men and women (mean age, 67.6 yr) were exposed to the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). The TSST is a brief psychosocial stress that consists of a free speech and mental arithmetic task in front of an audience. The results show that the TSST induced significant increases in ACTH, salivary free cortisol, total plasma cortisol, norepinephrine, and heart rates (all P < 0.0001) as well as decreased positive affect in the elderly (P = 0.0009). Men showed larger stress responses in ACTH (P = 0.004), salivary free cortisol (P = 0.044), and plasma total cortisol (P = 0.076) compared to women. No sex differences were observed in norepinephrine, epinephrine, or heart rate responses. In contrast to ACTH and cortisol response differences, women reported that they were significantly more stressed by the TSST than men (P = 0.0051). Women treated with DHEA showed ACTH stress responses similar to those of men, but significantly enhanced compared to those of women taking placebos (P < 0.009). No other stress response differences emerged between DHEA and placebo groups. Finally, DHEA treatment did not result in an improvement of subjective well-being. We conclude that elderly men show larger HPA responses than women to psychosocial stress, as studied in the TSST. Estrogen effects on hypothalamic CRF-producing neurons might be responsible for these sex differences.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Controlled Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / blood
  • Aged
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone*
  • Epinephrine / blood
  • Female
  • Heart Rate
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Kinetics
  • Male
  • Norepinephrine / blood
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology*


  • Dehydroepiandrosterone
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Hydrocortisone
  • Norepinephrine
  • Epinephrine