Cortisol levels rise among some women during the late stage of the menopausal transition (MT), but we know little about changes in cortisol levels in relation to menopause-related factors (MT stage, urinary estrone glucuronide [E1G], testosterone, follicle-stimulating hormone [FSH]), stress-related factors (epinephrine, norepinephrine, and perceived stress), symptoms (hot flashes, mood, memory, and sleep), social factors (income adequacy, role burden, social support, employment, parenting, and history of sexual abuse), and health-related factors (depressed mood, perceived health, physical appraisal, body mass index, and smoking). The aim of the study was to examine the influence of menopause-related factors, stress-related factors, symptoms, social factors, and health-related factors on cortisol levels during the MT.
Participants were a subset of Seattle Midlife Women's Health Study who provided data during the late reproductive, early and late MT stages, or early postmenopause and who were not using hormone therapy or corticosteroids (N = 132 women, up to 5,218 observations). Data provided included menstrual calendars for staging the MT, annual health reports, health diaries, and overnight urine specimens (assayed for cortisol, catecholamines, E1G, and FSH) between 1990 and 2005 were included. Perceived stress, symptoms, and health behaviors were assessed in a health diary. Health-related and social factors were assessed in an annual health update. Multilevel modeling was used to test the effects of menopause-related and other factors on overnight cortisol levels.
When tested with age as a measure of time, menopause-related covariates, including E1G, FSH, and testosterone, were associated with significant increases in overnight cortisol levels (P < 0.0001). Likewise, epinephrine and norepinephrine were each associated significantly with overnight cortisol levels (P < 0.0001). In multivariate analyses, E1G, FSH, and testosterone constituted the best set of predictors.
Overnight cortisol levels during the MT were associated with E1G, testosterone, and FSH levels. In addition, they were significantly and positively associated with epinephrine and norepinephrine. MT stage, symptoms, and social, stress-related, and health-related factors had little relationship to overnight cortisol levels when other biological indicators were considered.