Top-ranking baboons age the fastest. Is it worth it?

New research looks at the epigenetic effects of social status in baboons

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Maybe you found a grey hair on your head in your twenties. Might this lead you to wonder if maybe all your stress is making you age faster? It might, if you’re a high-achieving male baboon.

Our DNA collects different chemical modifications know as epigenetic changes. Some of these are age-related and make up our “epigenetic age.” Someone’s age in years and epigenetic age don’t always agree, and in humans faster epigenetic aging has been associated with increased disease risk and shorter lifespan. However, we’re still learning what influences epigenetic age in humans and other animals. 

A recent study published in eLife shows that social status is the best predictor of epigenetic age in male baboons. This faster aging isn’t true for female baboons, who inherit their ranks from their mothers. Therefore, the researchers posit it’s not the rank of male baboons that accelerates their aging. Instead, it’s the process of climbing the social ladder. So why would social climbing among baboons be associated with faster aging? 

For male baboons, rising in rank means fighting for it, and their rank can change in their adult life. Not only does high status increase epigenetic age, but dropping in status can reverse accelerated aging as well. This “live fast, die young” way of life may still be worth it, from an evolutionary perspective. Despite the cost, high-ranking males are still more likely to reproduce. Social pressures among humans don’t align with those of baboons. Nevertheless, learning how other primates age and why can help us better understand the factors that contribute to aging in humans.