The influence of childhood abuse on cortisol levels and the cortisol awakening response in depressed and nondepressed older adults

Ilse Wielaard*, Roxanne Schaakxs, Hannie C. Comijs, Max L. Stek, Didi Rhebergen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Objectives: Childhood abuse has been associated with depression in later life. This may be related to hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis functioning. Therefore we aimed to examine the impact of childhood abuse and its interaction with depression on cortisol levels in older adults. Methods: Data from 418 participants (mean age 70.8 years) in the Netherlands Study of Depression in Older Persons (NESDO) were used; 187 participants experienced childhood abuse; 309 participants had a diagnosis of depression. Diurnal cortisol levels were determined using six saliva samples from every participant. Multiple regression analyses were performed. Results: Significant negative associations between childhood abuse and morning cortisol levels were found. In nondepressed persons, both psychological and sexual abuse were associated with greater dynamics of the HPA axis in response to awakening. Conclusions: Childhood abuse is associated with lower basal cortisol levels at awakening irrespective of major depressive disorder (MDD). Higher reactivity of the HPA axis during the hour after awakening was found in nondepressed participants only, which might suggest that late-life depression modifies the effect of childhood abuse on the HPA axis. Older adults with a history of childhood abuse may be more negatively affected by stress or stressful events and this is reflected in dysregulation of the HPA axis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)440-449
Number of pages10
JournalWorld Journal of Biological Psychiatry
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 18 Aug 2018

Cite this