Early-Life Adversity and Dysregulation of Adult Diurnal Cortisol Rhythm

Arun S. Karlamangla, Sharon Stein Merkin, David M. Almeida, Esther M. Friedman, Jacqueline A. Mogle, Teresa E. Seeman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Objectives Exposure to life stresses can lead to diminution in the capacity of stress response systems to mount a robust response to new challenges, with blunting of dynamic range-the spread between maximal attainable and minimal resting levels. We investigate the association between early-life adversity and the dynamic range of adult diurnal cortisol secretion. Method In 35-to 86-year-old adults, cortisol assayed from 16 saliva samples over 4 consecutive days was used to compute diurnal dynamic range and area under the curve (AUC). Economic adversity in childhood was indexed by recalled parental education, family welfare dependence, and perceived financial status; and childhood social adversity by parental separation, death, and abuse. Results Adjusted for age, gender, and race/ethnicity, both childhood adversities were strongly associated with smaller adult cortisol diurnal dynamic range, but not with AUC. The association with cortisol dynamic range was explained by adult social and economic variables. Discussion Early-life adversity appears to leave a long-term imprint on cortisol secretion dynamics, reducing diurnal dynamic range without increasing total secretion. This points to the importance of examining the adaptation capacity of physiological systems when studying the impact of early-life and chronic stresses on adult health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)160-169
Number of pages10
JournalJournals of Gerontology - Series B Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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