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Evidence on the association between functioning of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and cognitive capability at older ages is mixed. We undertook a systematic review (until October 2016) and individual participant data (IPD) meta-analysis to test if dysregulation of the HPA axis is associated with worse cognitive capability. Five cohort studies were included in the IPD meta-analysis of diurnal cortisol patterns with crystallised and fluid cognitive ability. Higher night time cortisol was associated with worse fluid ability (standardised coefficient per SD increase -0.063, 95% CI -0.124, -0.002, P = 0.04; I2 = 79.9%; age and gender adjusted). A larger diurnal drop was associated with better fluid ability (standardised coefficient per SD increase 0.037, 95% CI 0.008, 0.065, P = 0.01; I2 = 49.2%; age and gender adjusted). A bigger cortisol awakening response (CAR) was weakly associated with better fluid (P = 0.09; I2 = 0.0%; age and gender adjusted) and crystallised (P = 0.10; I2 = 0.0%; age and gender adjusted) ability. There is weak evidence that a greater diurnal decline of the HPA axis and a larger CAR are associated with improvements in cognition at older ages. As associations are cross-sectional, we cannot rule out reverse causation.

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