Raised cortisol: DHEAS ratios in the elderly after injury; potential impact upon neutrophil function and immunity

Stephen Butcher, V Killampalli, David Lascelles, Ke-Qing Wang, EK Alpar, Janet Lord

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

87 Citations (Scopus)


The detrimental effect of stress on the immune response increases with age, though the mechanisms responsible are not fully understood. The physiological response to stress is regulated in part by the adrenocortical system. Adrenal hormones dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate (DHEAS) and cortisol have opposing effects on the innate immune system, DHEAS enhances while cortisol suppresses immunity and the molar ratio of cortisol to DHEAS increases with age. We found that elderly hip fracture patients produced a robust neutrophilia after injury, but circulating neutrophils showed an impaired antibacterial response. We therefore proposed that adrenocortical hormones mediate the heightened immunosuppression seen in the elderly after injury. We examined neutrophil function and adrenocortical hormone levels in elderly (> 65 years) hip fracture patients and age-matched healthy controls. Thirteen out of 35 elderly patients acquired infections following hip fracture. Neutrophil superoxide production was lower in elderly hip fracture patients compared with controls (P <0.005) and lower in patients who acquired infection following injury compared with those who did not (P <0.05). Serum cortisol:DHEAS ratio was higher in elderly hip fracture patients (0.56 +/- 0.38) compared with either age-matched controls (0.36 +/- 0.21; P <0.05) or young fracture patients (0.087 +/- 0.033; P <0.0001). Moreover, cortisol: DHEAS was increased in elderly patients who succumbed to infection compared with those who did not (0.803 +/- 0.42 vs. 0.467 +/- 0.28; P <0.02). In vitro cortisol significantly decreased neutrophil superoxide generation (P <0.05) and this was prevented by coincubation with DHEAS. We propose that increased cortisol:DHEAS ratios may contribute to reduced immunity following physical stress in the elderly.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)319-24
Number of pages6
JournalAging Cell
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2005


  • cortisol
  • trauma
  • bacterial infection
  • neutrophils
  • elderly


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