The Power of Friendship Against Childhood Stress

Summary: A new study, based on 36 years of data from nearly 200 baboons, indicates that strong social bonds formed in adulthood can counteract the negative effects of adversity experienced early in life.

These difficulties, similar to human experiences of growing up in a tumultuous environment, can shorten their lifespan.

Baboons who have formed strong friendships have recovered up to two years of life expectancy, despite the difficulties encountered in early life. This research offers a new perspective on the ability of social connections to ameliorate the long-term impacts of stress in early life.


  1. The study followed individual baboons near Kenya’s Amboseli National Park for 36 years, noting their social interactions and life experiences.
  2. Each additional hardship a baboon experienced early in life resulted in 1.4 years of life lost, regardless of the strength of its social ties.
  3. Strong social bonds, measured by frequency of grooming with close friends, added 2.2 years to a baboon’s life, regardless of childhood adversity.

Source: duke university

Decades of research show that experiencing traumatic things in childhood — like having an alcoholic parent or growing up in a rowdy home — puts you at worse health and survival risk later in life.

But growing evidence suggests that building strong social relationships can help mitigate these effects. And not just for humans, but also for our primate cousins.

Drawing on 36 years of data, a new study of nearly 200 baboons in southern Kenya finds that early-life adversity can shorten their lifespan by years, but strong social bonds with other baboons as adults can help them come back.

“It’s like the saying in the King James Apocrypha, ‘A faithful friend is the medicine of life,'” said lead author Susan Alberts, professor of evolutionary biology and anthropology at Duke University.

Baboons who had a difficult childhood were able to recover two years of life expectancy by forming strong friendships.

The results appear on May 17 in the journal Scientists progress.

This shows two baboons
Drawing on 36 years of data, a new study of nearly 200 baboons in southern Kenya finds that early-life adversity can shorten their lifespan by years, but strong social bonds with other baboons as adults can help them come back. Credit: Neuroscience News

Research has consistently shown that those who have more bad experiences growing up — things like abuse, neglect, a mentally ill parent — are more likely to face an early grave down the line. But figuring out how one leads to the other was harder to do.

While the downsides of a difficult upbringing are well documented, “the underlying mechanisms have been harder to identify,” Alberts said.

One of the limitations of previous research was the reliance on self-reported memories of their past, which can be subjective and imprecise.

Alberts said that’s where long-term research on wild primates – which share more than 90% of our DNA – comes in. Since 1971, researchers have tracked individual baboons near Amboseli National Park in Kenya on an almost daily basis, noting which animals they socialized and how they behaved over their lifetime as part of the Amboseli Baboon Research Project.

In the new study, the researchers wanted to know: How does adversity in early life ultimately lead to premature death, even years later?

One hypothesis is that trauma survivors often grow up to have difficult relationships as adults, and the resulting lack of social support, in turn, is what shortens their lives. But the new findings paint a different picture of the causal pathway involved in baboons and offer some hope.

In the study, researchers examined how early life experiences and adult social connections affected the long-term survival of 199 closely monitored female baboons in Amboseli between 1983 and 2019.

Baboons don’t grow up in broken or dysfunctional homes per se, but they are no strangers to hardship. For each woman, the team tallied her exposure to six potential sources of early adversity. They investigated whether she had a low-ranking or socially isolated mother, or whether her mother died before she reached maturity.

They also noted whether she was born in a drought year, born into a large group, or had a sibling close in age, which could mean more competition for resources or maternal attention. .

The results show that, for baboons growing up in the semi-arid and unpredictable landscape of Amboseli, stressful experiences are common. Of the baboons in the study, 75% suffered from at least one stressor and 33% had two or more.

The analyzes also confirmed previous findings that the higher the number of difficulties a woman has, the shorter her lifespan. But it wasn’t just because the baboons who experienced more upheaval early in life were more socially isolated as adults, which they were, Alberts said.

On the contrary, the researchers were able to show that 90% of the decline in survival was due to the direct effects of early adversity, and not to the weakening of social bonds that they inevitably experience in adulthood.

The effects add up. Each additional hardship translated to 1.4 years of life lost, no matter how strong or weak their bonds with other baboons were. Baboons who had four bad experiences growing up died nearly 5.6 years earlier than those who had none – a steep drop considering the average female baboon only lives to be around 18 years old.

But that doesn’t mean baboons with an unhappy start are doomed to a shortened life.

“Women who have bad first lives aren’t doomed,” said first author Elizabeth Lange, assistant professor at SUNY Oswego.

Far from there. Researchers also found that baboons who formed stronger social bonds – measured by how often they married their closest friends – added 2.2 years to their lives, no matter what they had. faced when they were younger.

Baboons whose mothers died before they reached maturity, but who then forged strong friendships as adults, were best able to bounce back.

The flip side is also true, Alberts said. “Strong social ties can mitigate the effects of adversity early in life, but conversely, weak social ties can amplify them.”

The researchers cannot yet say whether the results are generalizable to humans. But if that’s the case, say the researchers, it suggests that early intervention isn’t the only effective way to overcome the effects of childhood trauma.

“We found that early life adversity and adult social interactions affect survival independently,” Lange said. “This means that interventions that occur across the lifespan could improve survival.”

In other words, focusing on adults, especially their ability to build and maintain relationships, can also help.

“If you struggled early in life, whatever you did, try to make friends,” Alberts said.

Funding: This research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (R01AG053308, P01AG031719, R01AG053330, R01AG071684, R01HD088558, and R01AG075914) and the National Science Foundation (1456832).

About this social neuroscience and neurodevelopment research news

Author: Robin Smith
Source: duke university
Contact: Robin Smith – Duke University
Picture: Image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original research: Free access.
“Early-life adversity and adult social relationships have independent effects on wild primate survival” by Susan Alberts et al. Scientists progress


Early childhood adversity and adult social relationships have independent effects on wild primate survival

Adverse conditions early in life can have negative consequences for adult health and the survival of humans and other animals. What variables mediate the relationship between early adversity and adult survival?

Adult social environments represent one candidate: adversity in early life is related to social adversity in adulthood, and social adversity in adulthood predicts survival outcomes.

However, no studies have prospectively linked early life adversity, adult social behavior, and adult survival to measure the extent to which adult social behavior mediates this relationship.

We do this in a population of wild baboons in Amboseli, Kenya. We find weak mediation and largely independent effects of early adversity and adult sociality on survival.

Additionally, strong social ties and high social status in adulthood can mitigate some of the negative effects of early adversity.

These findings support the idea that affiliative social behavior is subject to natural selection through its positive relationship with survival, and they highlight possible targets for intervention to improve human health and well-being.

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