For better or worse: reduced adult lifespan following early-life stress is transmitted to breeding partners

Pat Monaghan, Britt J. Heidinger, Liliana D'Alba, Neil P. Evans, Karen A. Spencer


Stressful conditions early in life can give rise to exaggerated stress responses, which, while beneficial in the short term, chronically increase lifetime exposure to stress hormones and elevate disease risk later in life. Using zebra finches Taeniopygia guttata, we show here that individuals whose glucocorticoid stress hormones were experimentally increased for only a brief period in early post-natal life, inducing increased stress sensitivity, had reduced adult lifespans. Remarkably, the breeding partners of such exposed individuals also died at a younger age. This negative effect on partner longevity was the same for both sexes; it occurred irrespective of the partner's own early stress exposure and was in addition to any longevity reduction arising from this. Furthermore, this partner effect continued even after the breeding partnership was terminated. Only 5 per cent of control birds with control partners had died after 3 years, compared with over 40 per cent in early stress–early stress pairs. In contrast, reproductive capability appeared unaffected by the early stress treatment, even when breeding in stressful environmental circumstances. Our results clearly show that increased exposure to glucocorticoids early in life can markedly reduce adult life expectancy, and that pairing with such exposed partners carries an additional and substantial lifespan penalty.

  • Received June 20, 2011.
  • Accepted July 20, 2011.
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