Background: In a prospective, case-controlled longitudinal design, 180 preterm and fullterm infants who had been enrolled at birth participated in a comprehensive assessment battery at age 23. Of these, 149 young adults, 34 formerly full-term and 115 formerly preterm (22 healthy preterm, 48 with medical complications, 21 with neurological complications, and 24 small for gestational age) donated five saliva samples from a single day that were assayed for cortisol to assess diurnal variation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Analyses were conducted to determine whether prematurity category, birth weight, and socioeconomic status were associated with differences in HPA axis function. Pre- and perinatal circumstances associated with prematurity influenced the activity of this environmentally sensitive physiological system. Results are consistent with the theory of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease and highlight a possible mechanism for the link between prematurity and health disparities later in life.