Environmental influences on family similarity in afternoon cortisol levels: Twin and parent-offspring designs

Jane E. Schreiber, Elizabeth Shirtcliff, Carol Van Hulle, Kathryn Lemery, Marjorie H. Klein, Ned H. Kalin, Marilyn J. Essex, H. Hill Goldsmith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

90 Scopus citations


Modest genetic effects on morning, but not late-day, cortisol levels have been established. Environmental demands may influence basal cortisol levels later in the day. Thus, we anticipated that individuals in the same family would have similar afternoon cortisol levels to the extent that they share aspects of their environment. We examined afternoon basal cortisol levels measured across 3 consecutive days in mothers and fathers and in multiple offspring in two separate large and longitudinal studies. Study I involved 321 families with singletons while study II involved 233 families with twins. Modest family similarity was apparent for afternoon basal cortisol levels in both studies. Spouses' cortisol levels were also correlated. Data from study II demonstrated that family resemblance in afternoon cortisol was accounted for by underlying shared environmental factors, but not underlying genetic factors. Shared environment accounted for 62% of the variation in twin afternoon basal cortisol levels and 14% of the variation in parent afternoon basal cortisol levels. We used pooled data from the two studies to examine whether parental depression, socioeconomic status (SES), and offspring sex and age impacted cortisol levels. Female offspring had higher cortisol levels than males, and cortisol decreased with age until about 9 years of age, after which cortisol increased with age. Family similarity persisted after accounting for parental depression, SES, time of day, and offspring sex and age, which suggests that the shared family environment influences parent and offspring stress hormone levels throughout the childhood years.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1131-1137
Number of pages7
Issue number9
StatePublished - Oct 2006


  • Context
  • Cortisol
  • Environment
  • Family
  • Genetics
  • Twins

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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