Allostatic load is commonly operationalized using a sum-score of high-risk biomarkers. However, this method implies that biomarkers contribute equally to allostatic load, as each is given equal weight. Our goal in this methodological paper is to evaluate this, and complementarily, to identify biomarkers that are most informative and least informative for developing an allostatic load index. Item response theory models provide an alternate approach to calculating the allostatic load score, by treating individual biomarkers (e.g. “items”) as indicators of a latent allostatic load construct. Item response theory scores account for the data-driven discriminating power of each biomarker, and an individual's pattern of biomarker responses. To demonstrate feasibility of this approach, we used data from the 2015–2016 National Health Examination and Nutrition Survey (NHANES; N ​= ​3751), with twelve allostatic load biomarkers representing immune response, metabolic function and cardiovascular health. Item response theory models revealed that body-mass-index and C-reactive protein were the most informative biomarkers for allostatic load. Both higher allostatic load sum-score and allostatic load item response theory score were associated with lower socio-economic status (p ​= ​0.008; p<0.001, respectively). Further, both formulations of allostatic load were positively associated with a nine-item depression screener (p<0.001 for both), but only the item response theory score was also positively associated with the impact of depressive symptoms on daily life (p ​= ​0.045). Item response theory scores may be more finely tuned to tease out effects, compared to sum-scores, and also provide more flexibility when there are missing biomarker measurements. Supplemental R code for our approach are included.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100025
JournalComprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology
StatePublished - Feb 2021


  • Allostatic load
  • Biomarkers
  • Depression
  • Item response theory
  • National health and nutrition examination survey
  • Psychometrics


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