Children’s Stress and Their Health: Cortisol and the Common Cold
Type of Degreethesis
Human Development and Family Studies
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Many studies document associations between high levels of stress in early childhood and poor adult health, but understanding of mechanisms underlying these links is limited. Recent theoretical models focus on physiological mechanisms of stress, particularly dysregulation or modification of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis. However, little empirical research examines the proposed links. I examined associations between family risk factors, cortisol, and health in a sample of preschool-aged children from a midsize, South-Eastern city. I hypothesized that children's abnormally high and abnormally low cortisol levels, along with flat patterns of cortisol change over the day, would mediate associations between risk factors (low job status (i.e., prestige), minority status, and education) and poor health. Risk factors and cortisol predicted between 11% and 16% of the variance in child health. However, there was no evidence of mediation. Rather, risk factors and higher morning cortisol levels made independent contributions to the prediction of children’s health. Future studies should examine mechanisms linking early risk factors, HPA-axis factors, and health longitudinally, beginning in early childhood.