Hair cortisol reflects socio-economic factors and hair zinc in preschoolers

Ziba Vaghri, Martin Guhn, Joanne Weinberg, Ruth E Grunau, Wayne Yu, Clyde Hertzman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Citations (Scopus)


This study examined the relationship between children's hair cortisol and socioeconomic status of the family, as measured by parental education and income. Low family socioeconomic status has traditionally been considered a long-term environmental stressor. Measurement of hair cortisol provides an integrated index of cumulative stress exposure across an extended period of time. The present study is the first to examine the relationship between hair cortisol and parental education as well as parental income in a representative sample of preschoolers. Data on hair cortisol, family income, and parental education were collected for a representative sample of 339 children (Mean age=4.6 years; SD=.5 years) from across 23 neighbourhoods of the city of Vancouver, Canada. As maternal education was shown previously to be associated with hair zinc level, hair zinc measurements were included as well in order to explore potential relationships between hair zinc and hair cortisol. The relationship between hair cortisol and parental education was examined using hierarchical regression, with hair zinc, gender, age, and single parenthood included as covariates. Maternal and paternal education both were correlated significantly with hair cortisol (r=-0.18; p=.001). The relationship remained statistically significant even after controlling for all demographic covariates as well as for hair zinc and after taking the neighbourhood-level clustering of the data into account. Parental income, on the other hand, was not related significantly to children's hair cortisol. This study provides evidence that lower maternal and paternal education are associated with higher hair cortisol levels. As hair cortisol provides an integrated index of cortisol exposure over an extended time period, these findings suggest a possibly stable influence of SES on the function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Cumulative exposure to cortisol during early childhood may be greater in children from low socio-economic backgrounds, possibly through increased exposure to environmental stressors.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)331-340
Issue number3
Early online date17 Jul 2012
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2013

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Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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