Major depressive disorder is associated with smaller hippocampal volumes but the mechanisms underlying this relationship are unclear. To examine the effect of environmental influences, we examined the relationship between self-reported stressors and two-year change in hippocampal volume. Seventy elderly nondepressed subjects and eighty-nine elderly depressed subjects were followed for two years. The number of negative stressful life events (nSLE), perceived stress levels, and cranial MRI were obtained at baseline and at the two-year assessment. For secondary analyses, subjects provided blood for 5-HTTLPR polymorphism genotyping. After controlling for covariates including presence or absence of depression, greater numbers of baseline nSLEs were significantly associated with greater baseline hippocampal volumes bilaterally. Greater numbers of baseline nSLEs were also associated with reduction in hippocampal volume over two years in the right but not the left hemisphere. Neither perceived stress levels nor changes in stress measures were significantly associated with hippocampal volume measures. However, in secondary analyses, we found that increases in perceived stress over time was associated with volume reduction of the left hippocampus, but only in 5-HTTLPR L/L homozygotes. Our findings suggest different short- and long-term effects of negative life stressors on hippocampal volumes in older adults. These effects appear independent on the presence or absence of depression. Furthermore, these effects may be moderated by genetic polymorphisms in key neurotransmitter systems. These novel findings have important implications for understanding environmental influences on brain aging.
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