Social Bonds Do Not Mediate the Relationship between Early Adversity and Adult Glucocorticoids in Wild Baboons


In humans and other animals, harsh conditions in early life can have profound effects on adult physiology, including the stress response. This relationship may be mediated by a lack of supportive relationships in adulthood. That is, early life adversity may inhibit the formation of supportive social ties, and weak social support is itself often linked to dysregulated stress responses. Here, we use prospective, longitudinal data from wild baboons in Kenya to test the links between early adversity, adult social bonds, and adult fecal glucocorticoid hormone concentrations (a measure of hypothalamic– pituitary– adrenal [HPA] axis activation and the stress response). Using a causal inference framework, we found that experiencing one or more sources of early adversity led to a 9 to 14% increase in females’ glucocorticoid concentrations across adulthood. However, these effects were not mediated by weak social bonds: The direct effects of early adversity on adult glucocorticoid concentrations were 11 times stronger than the effects mediated by social bonds. This pattern occurred, in part, because the effect of social bonds on glucocorticoids was weak compared to the powerful effects of early adversity on glucocorticoid levels in adulthood. Hence, in female baboons, weak social bonds in adulthood are not enough to explain the effects of early adversity on glucocorticoid concentrations. Together, our results support the well-established notions that early adversity and weak social bonds both predict poor adult health. However, the magnitudes of these two effects differ considerably, and they may act independently of one another.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences