Hair cortisol and cognitive performance in healthy older people

Matias M. Pulopulos*, Vanesa Hidalgo, Mercedes Almela, Sara Puig-Perez, Carolina Villada, Alicia Salvador

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)


Worse cognitive performance in older people has been associated with hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysregulation (in particular, higher cortisol levels). Analysis of hair cortisol concentrations (HCC) is a novel method to measure long-term cortisol exposure, and its relationship with cognition in healthy older people has not yet been studied. We investigated whether HCC (measured in hair scalp) and diurnal salivary cortisol levels (awakening, 30. min after awakening, and evening, across two days) were related to cognitive performance (assessed with the Trail-making Test A and B, Digit Span Forward and Backward, word list-RAVLT and Stories subtest of the Rivermead) in 57 healthy older people (mean age=64.75 years, SD=4.17). Results showed that lower HCC were consistently related to worse working memory, learning, short-term verbal memory (RAVLT first trial and immediate recall) and long-term verbal memory. In contrast, higher mean levels and higher diurnal area under the curve of diurnal salivary cortisol were related to worse attention and short-term verbal memory (immediate story recall), respectively. Interestingly, a higher ratio of mean levels of diurnal salivary cortisol over HCC were related to worse performance on working memory and short-term verbal memory, suggesting that those individuals with lower long-term cortisol exposure might be more vulnerable to the negative effect of HPA-axis dysregulation on these cognitive processes. Our findings suggest that both low long-term cortisol exposure and a possible dysregulation of the diurnal rhythm of the HPA-axis may account, at least in part, for the inter-individual variability in cognitive performance in healthy older people.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)100-111
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Aging
  • Cognitive performance
  • Cortisol
  • Diurnal salivary cortisol
  • Hair cortisol
  • HCC
  • HPA
  • Hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis
  • Stress


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