Because glucocorticoid excess increases neuronal vulnerability, genetic variations in the glucocorticoid system may be related to the risk for Alzheimer's disease (AD). We analyzed single-nucleotide polymorphisms in 10 glucocorticoid-related genes in a population of 814 AD patients and unrelated control subjects. Set-association analysis revealed that a rare haplotype in the 5' regulatory region of the gene encoding 11beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 1 (HSD11B1) was associated with a 6-fold increased risk for sporadic AD. Results of a reporter-gene assay indicated that the rare risk-associated haplotype altered HSD11B1 transcription. HSD11B1 controls tissue levels of biologically active glucocorticoids and thereby influences neuronal vulnerability. Our results indicate that a functional variation in the glucocorticoid system increases the risk for AD, which may have important implications for the diagnosis and treatment of this disease.