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BACKGROUND: Although the prevalence of cardiovascular disease is declining, the obesity epidemic with associated metabolic syndrome may reverse this trend. Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activation may underlie the metabolic syndrome, but whether circulating cortisol levels predict vascular disease is less clear. A recent study reported a positive correlation between cortisol levels measured prior to coronary angiography and disease severity, but others have not demonstrated such a relationship. This may be due to different sampling conditions, reflecting basal cortisol levels, vs. responsiveness of HPA axis activity, which may have diverse influences on the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. AIMS: To determine whether basal circulating cortisol levels predict coronary artery (CAD) or peripheral vascular disease. METHODS: Basal plasma cortisol levels were measured in 278 subjects with suspected CAD, who had undergone elective coronary angiography and in 76 cases and 85 controls with and without peripheral vascular disease, respectively. RESULTS: After adjustment for potential confounding factors, circulating cortisol levels tended to be lower in those with confirmed coronary vessel disease at angiography (P = 0.10), and in those requiring intervention following angiography (P = 0.07). Lower cortisol levels also predicted those with more symptoms of angina (P = 0.01). Cortisol levels were no different in those with or without peripheral vascular disease. CONCLUSION: A single measurement of circulating cortisol is a poor predictor of vascular disease. More detailed characterization of the HPA axis is necessary to determine the role of circulating endogenous glucocorticoids and their responsiveness to stress in atherosclerosis.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





469 - 475


Aged, Biomarkers, Coronary Angiography, Coronary Artery Disease, Epidemiologic Methods, Female, Humans, Hydrocortisone, Male, Middle Aged, Peripheral Vascular Diseases