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Racial/ethnic disparities in cortisol diurnal patterns and affect in adolescence

  • Lillybelle K. Deer (a1), Grant S. Shields (a1), Susannah L. Ivory (a2), Camelia E. Hostinar (a1) and Eva H. Telzer (a2)...


Racial/ethnic minorities are more vulnerable to mental and physical health problems, but we know little about the psychobiological underpinnings of these disparities. In this study, we examined racial/ethnic differences in cortisol diurnal patterns and affect as initial steps toward elucidating long-term health disparities. A racially/ethnically diverse (39.5% White, 60.5% minority) sample of 370 adolescents (57.3% female) between the ages of 11.9 and 18 years (M = 14.65 years, SD = 1.39) participated in this study. These adolescents provided 16 cortisol samples (4 samples per day across 4 days), allowing the computation of diurnal cortisol slopes, the cortisol awakening response, and diurnal cortisol output (area under the curve), as well as daily diary ratings of high-arousal and low-arousal positive and negative affect. Consistent with prior research, we found that racial/ethnic minorities (particularly African American and Latino youth) exhibited flatter diurnal cortisol slopes compared to White youth, F (1, 344.7) = 5.26, p = .02, effect size g = 0.25. Furthermore, African American and Asian American youth reported lower levels of positive affect (both high arousal and low arousal) compared to White youth. Racial/ethnic differences in affect did not explain differences in cortisol patterns, suggesting a need to refine our models of relations between affect and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical activity. We conclude by proposing that a deeper understanding of cultural development may help elucidate the complex associations between affect and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical functioning and how they explain racial/ethnic differences in both affect and stress biology.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Eva H. Telzer, Davie Hall Psychology Building, 235 E. Cameron Avenue, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3270; E-mail:; or Camelia E. Hostinar, University of California-Davis, 202 Cousteau Place, Davis, CA 95618; E-mail:


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This manuscript was prepared with support from the Center for Poverty Research at University of California, Davis and National Science Foundation Grant 1327768 (to L.K.D. and C.E.H.), the National Institutes of Health Grant R01DA039923 and National Science Foundation Grant SES 1459719 (to E.H.T.), the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, and the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We greatly appreciate Lynda Lin and Michelle Miernicki for assistance with collecting and preparing the data.



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