Developmental histories of perceived racial discrimination and diurnal cortisol profiles in adulthood: A 20-year prospective study

Emma K. Adam, Jennifer A. Heissel, Katharine H. Zeiders, Jennifer A. Richeson, Emily C. Ross, Katherine B. Ehrlich, Dorainne J. Levy, Margaret Kemeny, Amanda B. Brodish, Oksana Malanchuk, Stephen C. Peck, Thomas E. Fuller-Rowell, Jacquelynne S. Eccles

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

151 Scopus citations


Perceived racial discrimination (PRD) has been associated with altered diurnal cortisol rhythms in past cross-sectional research. We investigate whether developmental histories of PRD, assessed prospectively, are associated with adult diurnal cortisol profiles. One-hundred and twelve (. N=. 50 Black, N=. 62 White) adults from the Maryland Adolescent Development in Context Study provided saliva samples in adulthood (at approximately age 32 years) at waking, 30. min after waking, and at bedtime for 7 days. Diurnal cortisol measures were calculated, including waking cortisol levels, diurnal cortisol slopes, the cortisol awakening response (CAR), and average daily cortisol (AUC). These cortisol outcomes were predicted from measures of PRD obtained over a 20-year period beginning when individuals were in 7th grade (approximately age 12).Greater average PRD measured across the 20-year period predicted flatter adult diurnal cortisol slopes for both Black and White adults, and a lower CAR. Greater average PRD also predicted lower waking cortisol for Black, but not White adults. PRD experiences in adolescence accounted for many of these effects. When adolescent and young adult PRD are entered together predicting cortisol outcomes, PRD experiences in adolescence (but not young adulthood) significantly predicted flatter diurnal cortisol slopes for both Black and White adults. Adolescent, but not young adult PRD, also significantly predicted lower waking and lower average cortisol for Black adults. Young adult PRD was, however, a stronger predictor of the CAR, predicting a marginally lower CAR for Whites, and a significantly larger CAR for Blacks. Effects were robust to controlling for covariates including health behaviors, depression, income and parent education levels. PRD experiences interacted with parent education and income to predict aspects of the diurnal cortisol rhythm. Although these results suggest PRD influences on cortisol for both Blacks and Whites, the key findings suggest that the effects are more pervasive for Blacks, affecting multiple aspects of the cortisol diurnal rhythm. In addition, adolescence is a more sensitive developmental period than adulthood for the impacts of PRD on adult stress biology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)279-291
Number of pages13
StatePublished - Dec 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Adolescence
  • Cortisol
  • Diurnal cortisol rhythms
  • Early experience
  • Hypocortisolism
  • Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis
  • Racial discrimination

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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