Stress and Aging: The Glucocorticoid Cascade Hypothesis

Also see:
The Streaming Organism
Stress, Portrait of a Killer – Full Documentary (2008)
Belly Fat, Cortisol, and Stress

Sci. Aging Knowl. Environ., 25 September 2002
Vol. 2002, Issue 38, p. cp21
The Neuroendocrinology of Stress and Aging: The Glucocorticoid Cascade Hypothesis
Robert M. Sapolsky, Lewis C. Krey, and Bruce S. McEwen
Abstract: Over the past 5 yr, we have examined some of the sharpest edges of the pathology of aging. We have studied the capacity of aged organisms to respond appropriately to stress and the capacity of stress to cumulatively damage aging tissue. The idea of a relationship between stress and aging has permeated the gerontology literature in two forms. First, senescence has been thought of as a time of decreased adaptiveness to stress. This idea has been supported frequently, as many aged physiological systems function normally under basal conditions, yet do not adequately respond to a challenge. For example, aged and young humans have similar basal body temperatures, but the former are relatively impaired in thermoregulatory capacities when heat- or cold-challenged. A second theme in gerontology concerning stress is that chronic stress can accelerate the aging process. Selye and Tuchweber for example, postulated a finite “adaptational energy” in an organism, with prolonged stress prematurely depleting such reserves, thus accelerating the onset of senescence. This idea was derivative of earlier idea that the “rate of living” could be a pacemaker of aging. Experimentally, varied approaches have supported the notion that at least some biomarkers of age can be accelerated by stress.

The above hypotheses led us to examine the adrenocortical axis, the endocrine axis which is among the most central to the stress response. Our findings support both of these concepts. We find that the aged male rat is impaired in terminating the secretion of adrenocortical stress hormones, glucocorticoids, at the end of stress. This hormonal excess may be due to degenerative changes in a region of the brain which normally inhibits glucocorticoid release; the degeneration, in turn, is caused by cumulative exposure to glucocorticoids. Together, these effects form a feed-forward cascade with potentially serious pathophysiological consequences in the aged subject.

In the adrenal glands, renewing cells stream from the capsule on the surface of the gland toward the center of the gland. The first cells to be produced in a regenerating gland are those that produce aldosterone, the next in the stream are the cortisol producing cells, and the last to be formed are the cells that produce the sex hormones, the androgens, including DHEA, and progesterone. In aging, after the age of thirty, the renewal slows, but the dissolution of the sex hormone zone continues, so the proportion shifts, increasing the ration of aldosterone and cortisol producing cells to the layer that produces the protective androgens and progesterone (Parker, et al., 1997). -Ray Peat, PhD

J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1997 Nov;82(11):3898-901.
Aging alters zonation in the adrenal cortex of men.
Parker CR Jr, Mixon RL, Brissie RM, Grizzle WE.
Whereas aging has been shown to be associated with striking reductions in circulating levels of adrenal androgens in humans, the alteration in adrenal function that occurs in aging has not been identified. We sought to determine if there are changes in the zonation of the adrenal in aging men by performing histomorphologic analyses of adrenal specimens that had been obtained at autopsy following sudden death due to trauma. We evaluated adrenals from 21 young men (20-29 yrs) and 12 older men (54-90 yrs); inclusion criteria required the presence of medullary tissue in the specimen and fixation within the first 24 hrs postmortem. Sections stained with H/E were examined microscopically and areas of the cortex that included adjacent medullary tissue were chosen for quantitative evaluation by use of a computerized image analysis system. The average width (arbitrary units, pixels) of the zona reticularis and that of the combined zonae fasciculata/glomerulosa were determined from sections stained for reticulum fibers. The zona reticularis represented 37.1 +/- 1.9% of the total cortical width in the young men, which was significantly greater than that of the older men (27.1 +/- 3.3%, P = 0.0082). The zona fasciculata/glomerulosa to zona reticularis ratio in the young men (1.84 +/- 0.15) was significantly less that that of the older men (3.29 +/- 0.47, P = 0.0011). There was no significant difference in the total width of the cortex in young compared to older men. These data suggest that aging results in alterations within the cortex of the adrenals in men such that there is a reduction in the size of the zona reticularis and a relative increase in the outer cortical zones. A reduced mass of the zona reticularis could be responsible for the diminished production of dehydroepiandrosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate that occurs during aging.

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