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Childhood trauma can be overcome in adulthood, even in the animal kingdom

Groundbreaking research spanning decades has demonstrated a clear correlation between trauma in childhood and poor health outcomes in later life. Experiences such as living with an alcoholic parent or in a chaotic household can significantly impact one’s future health and longevity. 

However, recent evidence suggests that these impacts can be mitigated significantly through the creation of robust social relationships. This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to humans; it extends to our primate cousins as well.

Watching and learning from baboons

In a study drawing upon 36 years of data, scientists observed nearly 200 baboons in southern Kenya. They found that early-life adversity shortened the baboons’ lifespans, but the establishment of solid social bonds in adulthood helped recover the lost years.

Senior author Susan Alberts, a professor of biology and evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, drew a parallel with a saying from the King James Apocrypha, “a faithful friend is the medicine of life.” Professor Alberts’ research suggests that this isn’t just a saying, but a scientific fact. Baboons who faced hardships early in life managed to reclaim two years of their life expectancy by forming strong social ties.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances, contributing to the growing body of research that shows a clear link between adverse childhood experiences and reduced life expectancy. 

Childhood trauma, including abuse, neglect, or living with a mentally ill parent, has long been linked to a risk of premature death, though understanding the direct mechanisms has proven to be more challenging.

Previous research was limited due to its reliance on individual’s subjective and potentially imprecise memories of their past. This is where the long-term study of wild primates, who share over 90% of our DNA, becomes invaluable. 

Tracking baboon families since 1971

The Amboseli Baboon Research Project has been tracking individual baboons near Kenya’s Amboseli National Park since 1971, recording their social interactions and overall health over their lifetimes.

In the recent study, researchers aimed to understand the pathway leading from early adversity to premature death in baboons. One theory suggests that survivors of trauma often have troubled relationships in adulthood, which, due to lack of social support, shortens their lifespan. However, the researchers found a more complex causal pathway in baboons, offering hope.

How the study was done

The study focused on 199 female baboons closely monitored between 1983 and 2019, examining the impact of early life experiences and adult social connections on their survival. While baboons don’t have broken homes as humans do, they still experience adversities. 

These include having a low-ranking or socially isolated mother, losing their mother before reaching maturity, being born in a drought year, being born into a large group, or having a closely-aged sibling, which may mean more competition for resources or maternal attention.

The results were telling. In the unpredictable semi-arid environment of Amboseli, stressful experiences are common, with 75% of the studied baboons encountering at least one stressor, and 33% encountering two or more. 

What the researchers learned

The study confirmed that the more hardships a female baboon faced, the shorter her lifespan. However, the shortened lifespan was not solely due to social isolation in adulthood, although that was a factor.

The researchers found that 90% of the reduction in survival was directly due to early adversity, independent of the weakened social bonds experienced in adulthood. Every additional hardship resulted in a loss of 1.4 years of life, irrespective of the strength of the baboon’s social bonds. 

Baboons with four adverse experiences in their early lives died nearly 5.6 years earlier than those with none, a significant decrease considering the average lifespan of a female baboon is about 18 years.

However, an unfortunate start does not condemn these baboons to an early grave. “Females who have bad early lives are not doomed,” said study first author, Elizabeth Lange, an assistant professor at SUNY Oswego.

An unexpected silver lining

Contrary to what one might expect, the research uncovered a silver lining. Baboons who succeeded in establishing robust social bonds in their adult lives — measured by the frequency of grooming with their closest friends — added an average of 2.2 years to their lifetimes, regardless of their past adversities. This resilience was most evident in baboons that lost their mothers before reaching maturity but later formed strong friendships.

Alberts asserted that the study’s findings held implications both ways. “Strong social bonds can mitigate the effects of early life adversity, but conversely, weak social bonds can magnify it,” she said.

Although the researchers caution against making a direct comparison to humans, they suggest that if the results were generalizable, it could point to a need for interventions beyond early childhood to address the effects of trauma.

“We found that both early life adversity and adult social interactions affect survival independently,” said Lange. “That means that interventions that occur throughout the lifespan could improve survival.” This suggests that an emphasis on helping adults build and maintain relationships could be beneficial.

Alberts summarized the study’s findings in simple terms: “If you did have early life adversity, whatever you do, try to make friends.” This advice, while seemingly straightforward, underscores the remarkable potential for resilience and recovery in the face of adversity, a lesson we can learn from our primate cousins.

More about childhood trauma

Childhood trauma is a significant public health concern that can have far-reaching impacts on a person’s life. It includes experiences like physical or sexual abuse, emotional neglect, witnessing violence, living with a mentally ill or substance-abusing family member, or suffering through the divorce or incarceration of a parent. Such experiences can deeply affect a child’s development and overall well-being.

Research has shown that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can lead to a range of physical, mental, and behavioral problems that persist into adulthood:

Physical Health Problems

Childhood trauma has been linked to chronic health conditions in adulthood, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke. This could be due to the impact of prolonged stress on the body’s systems, which can affect immune function, inflammation response, and even the integrity of genetic material.

Mental Health Disorders

Individuals who have experienced childhood trauma are at a higher risk of developing mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance use disorders.

Behavioral Issues

Childhood trauma can also lead to problems with impulse control, aggression, and risk-taking behavior. It can affect academic performance and lead to difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships.

Life Expectancy

Some studies, such as the landmark CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study, have found that the more ACEs a person has, the higher their risk for early death.

The reasons for these long-term impacts are complex and involve both psychological and physiological factors. From a psychological perspective, traumatic experiences can disrupt a child’s sense of safety and predictability in the world, leading to difficulties with emotion regulation, self-concept, and relating to others.

From a physiological perspective, chronic stress from trauma can affect the development of the brain and other body systems. This is particularly true for trauma experienced in early childhood when the brain is rapidly developing. 

The chronic activation of the body’s stress response system – the “fight, flight, or freeze” response – can lead to what’s called “toxic stress.” This prolonged stress can disrupt the development and functioning of the brain, immune system, and metabolic regulatory controls, and it can alter the expression of genes involved in stress regulation.

Despite the potential for severe and long-lasting effects, it’s important to note that childhood trauma does not determine one’s destiny. Many people who experience trauma in childhood do not develop all, or even any, of these potential outcomes. 

Various factors, such as the presence of at least one stable, caring, and supportive relationship in a child’s life, can help build resilience and protect against many of these impacts. Furthermore, therapeutic interventions can help individuals who have experienced childhood trauma to heal and lead fulfilling lives.

As the study with baboons suggests, social connections and relationships are one potential area of resilience and recovery. In humans, these findings underscore the importance of interventions aimed at fostering and strengthening social relationships throughout life, not just in early childhood.

More about baboons

Baboons are highly social primates known for their complex and dynamic social structures. They live in groups known as troops, which can range in size from a few individuals to several hundred. Their social interactions are fascinating, encompassing a broad range of behaviors that help to maintain group cohesion and manage conflicts.


Baboon society is hierarchical, both among males and females. Status is typically determined by lineage for females – daughters usually inherit the social rank of their mothers – and by physical strength, aggression, and alliances for males. High-ranking baboons have better access to food, grooming partners, and mates.


Grooming is a crucial aspect of baboon social behavior. It’s not just about hygiene – removing ticks and other parasites – but also about forming and maintaining social bonds. Grooming often happens between close relatives, but also between unrelated individuals as a way to form alliances. It’s often reciprocal and can increase the groomer’s social rank.

Friendships and Alliances

Baboons form friendships and alliances that can influence their position in the group. Males often form alliances to increase their chances of acquiring and maintaining a higher rank, which increases their access to fertile females. Female baboons are known to form strong bonds with males, which can provide them and their offspring protection from threats within the group.

Maternal Bonds

Female baboons have strong relationships with their offspring. Mothers carry, nurse, groom, protect, and teach their young, while older siblings also help take care of younger ones. These strong maternal bonds have a significant impact on a young baboon’s survival and social status.


Baboons use a variety of vocalizations, body postures, and facial expressions to communicate. For example, a “lip-smacking” gesture is generally a sign of friendliness, while a yawn that shows off canine teeth can be a threat. Understanding these signals and responding appropriately is a critical part of navigating baboon society.


Baboon mating behaviors can be complex. While the dominant males typically have access to the most females, lower-ranking males can also mate by forming “friendships” with females. These relationships, which involve grooming and close proximity, can lead to mating opportunities for the male and potential protection for the female and her offspring.

The social structure of baboon society provides many benefits, such as increased protection against predators and better access to food resources. However, it also requires baboons to navigate complex social relationships and dynamics. 

These behaviors, which are remarkably similar in many ways to human social interactions, have made baboons a popular subject for research in fields like psychology, sociology, and anthropology.


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