Young adults born preterm at very low birth weight (VLBW, ≤1500 g) have higher levels of cardiovascular risk factors, including impaired glucose regulation, than their term-born peers. This could be mediated through altered hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA) response to stress.


To compare HPAA, glucose and insulin responses provoked by psychosocial stress in VLBW subjects versus a comparison group of term-born controls.

Design and participants

We studied 54 unimpaired young adults, aged 19–27 years, born at VLBW and a comparison group of 40 adults born at term, group-matched for age, sex and birth hospital, from one regional centre in southern Finland. The participants underwent a standardized psychosocial stress test (Trier Social Stress Test, TSST).


In conjunction with TSST, we measured salivary cortisol, plasma ACTH, cortisol, glucose and insulin. Data were analysed with mixed-effects model and multiple linear regression analyses.


Baseline concentrations for cortisol, ACTH, insulin and glucose were similar in VLBW and comparison groups. During TSST, analysed with mixed-effects model, overall concentrations of plasma cortisol were 17·2% lower (95% CI; 3·5 to 28·9) in the VLBW group. The VLBW group also had lower salivary (P = 0·04) and plasma cortisol (P = 0·02) responses to TSST. Insulin and glucose concentrations correlated with changes in cortisol concentrations. Accordingly, VLBW subjects had 26·5% lower increment in insulin (95% CI; 9·8–40·1). Analyses were adjusted for age, sex, body mass index, hormonal contraception, menstrual cycle phase, time of day and parental education.


VLBW adults have lower HPAA responses to psychosocial stress than term-born controls. This is accompanied by a lower insulin response.