The HPA axis response to stress in women: Effects of aging and fitness

Tinna Traustadóttir, Pamela R. Bosch, Kathleen S. Matt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

123 Scopus citations


This study tested the hypotheses that aging is associated with greater hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis reactivity to psychological stress, and whether aerobic fitness is associated with a lower HPA axis response to psychological stress. Three groups, consisting of young-unfit women (27.9±2.5 yr, n=10), older-unfit women (66.3±1.4 yr, n=14), and older-fit women (66.6±2.0 yr, n=12), underwent the Matt Stress Reactivity Protocol (MSRP). The MSRP is a stress test battery that combines mental challenges, a physical challenge, and a psychosocial stressor. Definition of fitness was based on maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) where unfit was defined as having VO2 max≤average for the respective age group and fit was defined as VO2 max>average for the respective age group. The MSRP elicited increases in heart rate, blood pressure, ACTH, and cortisol (P<0.001). The older-unfit women had significantly greater cortisol responses to the challenge than both the young-unfit and the older-fit women (P<0.05), who did not differ from each other. ACTH levels were significantly higher in the older-unfit women at baseline and throughout the trial, compared to both young-unfit and the older-fit (P<0.01). The ACTH response was not different between any of the groups. The young-unfit women had greater heart rate responses than the older-unfit (P<0.01), while the latter had greater systolic blood pressure responses (P<0.01). There were no significant differences between the older-unfit and older-fit in terms of heart rate or blood pressure responses. Our result shows that among unfit women, aging is associated with greater HPA axis reactivity to psychological stress, and that higher aerobic fitness among older women can attenuate these age-related changes as indicated by a blunted cortisol response to psychological stress. These findings suggest that exercise training may be an effective way of modifying some of the neuroendocrine changes associated with aging.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)392-402
Number of pages11
Issue number4
StatePublished - May 2005


  • ACTH
  • Aging
  • Cortisol
  • Exercise
  • Stress
  • VO

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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