Self-esteem is the overall feeling you have about yourself. Those who possess too little may become depressed and fall short of their potential, but those at the opposite end of the spectrum fare no better. Those who feel too much self-love often repel others with their overly high confidence and appear unable to learn from their own mistakes. Healthy self-esteem rides the middle line, avoiding either extreme.

In recent years, psychology researchers have shifted their focus away from rating a person’s baseline level of self-esteem to measuring changes in self-perception over time. “A lot of research now is interested in the deviations from what you normally think about yourself,” Sarah Y. Liu, a doctoral candidate at Concordia University, told Medical Daily. Two studies — one examining the effects of self-esteem among adolescents, the other in the elderly — reveal how variations in self-opinion may impact a person’s health. In fact, it’s the changes that may matter more than the set point, whether high, medium, or low.

Nearing the End of Life

Past research finds self-esteem often declines during older adulthood. “There are many reasons for this. People no longer work so there’s a loss of social roles, friends die so there’s a loss of social network,” Liu said.“Or maybe you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic illness.” Working with Dr. Carsten Wrosch, senior researcher and professor, Department of Psychology, Concordia University, Liu and her colleagues hypothesized that dwindling self-esteem may remove a buffer that normally protects a person against changes in cortisol secretion. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released in response to stress; when levels are too high, this hormone may suppress the immune system, inhibit food metabolism (causing weight gain), or decrease bone formation.

To pursue their theory, the team enlisted the help of 147 adults over the age of 60. During the study period, each person was assessed three times over four years, with the researchers measuring levels of cortisol, self-esteem, perceived stress, and symptoms of depression. Self-esteem was measured through standard questions, such as whether the participant felt worthless. The study also factored in personal and health factors like a participant’s economic status, mortality risk, and marriage status. After analyzing the data, what did the researchers discover?

Maintaining or even improving self-esteem helped to prevent health problems. “In our study the levels of self-esteem, how they changed over time — regardless of where they were to begin with — that came out as most important,” said Liu. For this reason she recommends improving self-esteem as a way of gaining real health benefits in seniors. "The ultimate solution may be to prevent self-esteem from declining," she noted.

At the Beginning of Life

A previous study, led by Dr. Gregory E. Miller, professor, Department of Psychology, Northwestern University, explored and examined the self-esteem of adolescent females and its possible link to vascular function. The research team, which included Liu, recruited 130 adolescent females, who were asked to complete the Rosenberg Self-Esteem scale every six months over a two-and-a-half-year period. During that same period, participants’ vascular function was measured three times using peripheral artery tonometry; this non-invasive tool gauges both endothelial function and arterial stiffness, when elastic fibers in the arterial wall begin to fray, both of which may predict cardiovascular disease at a later age. (Increased arterial stiffness is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular events.) At the conclusion of the study period, the researchers discovered a definite relationship between the amount of change in self-esteem and arterial stiffness.

“To the extent that their self-esteem fluctuated over the 2.5-year study, participants showed increasing trajectories of arterial stiffness, independent of various demographic and biobehavioral confounders,” wrote the authors in their conclusion. “These findings suggest that fluctuating self-esteem may accelerate the early stages of vascular stiffening in young women, regardless of whether self-views are generally positive or negative.”

Taken together these two studies suggest, like drinking white wine with fish and red wine with meat, specific psychological goals go best with different life stages. A young person would be wise to aim for a steady, consistent feeling of self-value even though emotions are naturally in flux during the years of adolescence. Later in life, it is crucial for a person to find ways of increasing self-esteem to buffer against negative health. According to the research, an emphasis on equanimity and adaptability, at the right time, may do wonders in helping us be our best and healthiest self.

Sources: Liu SY, Wrosch C, Miller GE, Pruessner JC. Self-esteem change and diurnal cortisol secretion in older adulthood. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2014.

Ross K, Liu SY, Tomfohr L, Miller G.E. Self-esteem variability predicts arterial stiffness trajectories in healthy adolescent females. Health Psychology. 2013.