Although the hippocampus is thought to play a central role in the regulation of the cortisol awakening response (CAR), results from past studies examining the relationship between the CAR and hippocampal-mediated memory and cognition have been mixed. Inconsistent findings may be due to the use of cortisol samples collected on only 1–2 days since reduced sampling can permit unstable situational factors to bias results. We used cortisol assessments from 10 consecutive days to test the relationship of the CAR to episodic memory, working memory, and processing speed in a sample of healthy young, middle-aged, and older adults (age range: 23–79 years; N = 56). We tested if the relationship between the CAR and cognition would depend upon age and also tested if other cortisol measures, specifically waking cortisol, diurnal cortisol output (i.e., area under the curve) and diurnal cortisol slope (linear and quadratic), would be related to cognition. We found that a more positive CAR slope was related to better episodic memory and that this relationship did not depend upon age. The CAR was not significantly related to working memory. The relationship of the CAR to processing speed was not significant when using a CAR measure that corrected for non-compliant cortisol sampling. We also found that higher waking cortisol was significantly related to better working memory, but not episodic memory or processing speed. Neither diurnal cortisol output nor diurnal linear cortisol slope was significantly related to cognitive functioning. Future work should investigate the mechanisms underpinning the relationship of the cortisol awakening process to cognitive functioning.
Ennis, G. E., Moffat, S. D., & Hertzog, C. (2016). The cortisol awakening response and cognition across the adult lifespan. Brain and Cognition, 105, 66-77.