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Childhood Adversity Shortens Lives (in Baboons)

Growing up in difficult circumstances slashes baboons’ lifespans, a new study finds.

By Nathan Collins


A baboon and her mother in Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Losing a mother at a young age, growing up in cramped living quarters, and wanting for food can all have obvious effects on one’s health. It turns out, much the same is true of baboons—and that’s important, the authors of a new study write, because of what it tells us about childhood adversity in humans.

“Females who experience [three or more] sources of early adversity die a median of 10 years earlier than females who experience [one or no] adverse circumstances,” effectively cutting their average lifespans in half, write Jenny Tung, Elizabeth Archie, and colleagues in the journal Nature Communications.

The results suggest there’s a direct link between early adversity and a shortened lifespan.

Some had thought that, in humans, the link between childhood trauma and poor health later in life was indirect—childhood abuse, for example, might lead someone to abuse drugs, which in turn might take years off that person’s life. But since baboons don’t take drugs (not that we know of, anyway), the results suggest there’s a direct link between early adversity and a shortened lifespan.

The study focused on 196 female baboons in southern Kenya, where the Amboseli Baboon Research Project has been following the local population since 1971. Over much of that time, the researchers tracked drought conditions, social group sizes, mothers’ social status and social connectedness, mothers’ mortality rates, and the presence of younger siblings competing for attention.

Among the 29 baboons who experienced adversity in three or more of those situations, none lived longer than 15 years, compared with more than three-quarters of those who experienced no adversity. For the former group, the median lifespan was just shy of nine years, while for the latter it was 24 years. Female baboons who experienced childhood adversity had fewer social connections as adults and mothered fewer children, largely because of their shortened lifespans.

The link to social connections is particularly tantalizing, the researchers write. In humans, stronger social ties can lengthen a life, and weak ones can shorten it. The baboon findings add to that story, suggesting that a strong social network may be hard to come by without solid, stable childhood experiences, although the researchers caution there’s still much work to do before those links are understood in baboons, let alone humans.