INTRODUCTION: While positive social support is associated with lower prevalence of disease and better treatment outcomes, negative social relationships can instead have unfavourable consequences for several physical and mental health conditions. However, the specific mechanisms by which this nexus might operate remain poorly understood. Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis hyperactivity owing to psychosocial stress has been proposed as a potential pathway underlying the link between social support and health. Hair glucocorticoids such as cortisol and cortisone are emerging as promising biomarkers of long-term retrospective HPA activation. Therefore, the aim of this investigation was to examine the effects of positive and negative experiences of social support within key relationships (i.e. spouse/partner, children, other family members, and friends) on cortisol and cortisone.

METHODS: These associations were tested in a sample of 2520 older adults (mean age 68.1) from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Hair samples were collected in wave 6 (2012/13). To understand the impact of cumulative exposure to poor social support, the analysis used self-reported data from waves 4 (2008/09) and 6. Covariates included demographic, socioeconomic, lifestyle, and hair characteristics.

RESULTS: In cross sectional analyses, lower positive support from all sources and specifically from children were associated with higher cortisol. Additionally, lower positive support from children was positively associated with cortisone. Similarly, higher overall negative support was related to higher cortisol, and greater negative support from children was also positively associated with cortisone. In longitudinal analyses, there was evidence for positive associations between hair glucocorticoids and cumulative exposure to poorer social support.

CONCLUSIONS: Experiences of low positive and high negative social support, particularly from children, were both related to higher hair glucocorticoids. Hence, social relationships of poorer quality in later life may have adverse effects on the HPA axis thereby increasing the individual's susceptibility to poor health.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)100-108
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2018


  • Aged
  • Biomarkers
  • Cortisone/analysis
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Family
  • Female
  • Glucocorticoids/analysis
  • Hair/chemistry
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone/analysis
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System/metabolism
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System/metabolism
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Social Support
  • Stress, Psychological/metabolism
  • Surveys and Questionnaires


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