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Cortisol Levels May Be At The Center Of Clinical Depression

Increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol may help predict depression and the risk of depression in future generations, according to new research.

Scientists from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging (TILDA) found that adult men with increased cortisol levels (measured in 2014 via hair samples) exhibited more signs of depression six years than those with regular levels.

Though many of cortisol’s long term adverse effects are still unknown, researchers believe the hormone could hold keys to determining both psychological and biological risk factors.

For instance, individuals currently facing depression often report elevated cortisol levels in their current biochemistry. But they likely would have also reported heightened levels years before their diagnoses, according to this research, meaning that cortisol may soon be considered a leading indicator for the mental illness.

Next up for doctors is to try to link increased cortisol levels with a period of heightened stress — like the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic — to determine if the hormone may cause a triggering effect into depression.

Cortisol levels in hair samples may provide important information regarding large cross sections of populations

“As TILDA has been gathering data for years, we were able to look back in time to 2014 to when cortisol levels were measured and investigate whether they were associated with an increased risk of depression during COVID-19,” Dr. Joanne Feeney, lead author of the study and Senior Research Fellow in medical gerontology at Trinity, explained.

“Given the negative impact of the virus and lockdowns on mental health, the findings are important for understanding who may be most at risk and thinking about possible protective measures for the future,” she added.

Professor Rose Anne Kenny, TILDA’s principal investigator, said the investigation into cortisol, especially hair samples, is both new and potentially groundbreaking in its efficacy.

“The measurement of cortisol using hair samples is a very novel approach in a population study. It is also the first time that this has been used on such a large scale in Ireland. This allows us to easily measure hormonal stress effects —which previously required five samples of blood or saliva in one day. Cortisol is linked to fast and slow aging processes. And stress is an important determinant of these and of our biological aging,” Kenny said.

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