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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Cortisol synchrony in older couples : links with differential contexts, individual characteristics, and long-term outcomes Pauly, Theresa


For a lot of older adults, the relationship with a significant other is a fundamental social context that structures their daily life and interactions. This research program investigated everyday interpersonal physiological dynamics that may contribute to intertwined health trajectories in old age. In particular, it focused on interconnected fluctuations of the stress hormone cortisol (cortisol synchrony) because dysregulated cortisol secretion has been linked with significant health risks. It utilized three samples of older adult couples (N = 322 couples), who provided multiple salivary cortisol samples and concurrent electronic assessments for a 7-day period, as they went about their daily lives. Study 1 aimed to illuminate daily life situations (proximal contexts) and pertinent individual differences that may be associated with more pronounced cortisol synchrony in older couples. Cortisol synchrony was higher in moments when the partner was present and when individuals reported prior positive socio-emotional partner interactions. Furthermore, greater self-reported perspective taking tended to be linked with greater cortisol synchrony. Building on these findings, Study 2 aimed to better understand long-term risks and benefits of being ‘in sync’. Among wives, higher cortisol synchrony was associated with a stronger increase in relationship satisfaction but also a stronger increase in cardiovascular risk over time, as indexed by non-high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels. For husbands, higher cortisol synchrony was not significantly associated with changes in relationship satisfaction or non-HDL cholesterol levels over time, but it was linked with higher initial non-HDL cholesterol levels. Study 3 adopted a macro perspective, taking a step back to examine broader socio-political correlates of cortisol synchrony in older couples. The extent of cortisol synchrony was moderated by macro-context, such that couples living in a German federal state that was placed further right on the left-right political ideological spectrum exhibited greater cortisol synchrony. This line of research emphasizes that older romantic partners are deeply intertwined in daily processes relevant for health. It unpacks key proximal and distal correlates of everyday cortisol synchrony, identifies individual differences relevant to such dynamics, and points to potential adaptive and maladaptive long-term implications of cortisol synchrony for relationship functioning and health.

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