People age the same as non-human primates

Posted on March 11, 2011


Like most women I spend far too much money on cosmetics and beauty products. I’m a sucker for anything that tells me it will stave off the ageing process that little bit longer. But the reality is no matter how much jojoba; aloe vera; goji and acai berries there are in my face cream, ageing is a natural process that I just have to accept.

For a long time the scientific community were convinced that humans had an ageing advantage over other primates. And I’m not talking about the use of Botox and plastic surgery. A study – Aging in the Natural World – published today in the journal Science now debunks that long-held belief.

Sifakas are only found in Madagascar, they are endangered.

It is the first to compare human aging patterns with those of “our closest evolutionary relatives” involving the collaborative efforts of seven researchers who carried out long-term wild primate projects in different parts of the world.

According to researchers, life span patterns are most affected by both early adult mortality rates of a species and also how quickly that species increases mortality with advancing adult age. Humans had been believed to be different from other primates in the measure of how mortality increases with advancing adult age, but this research shows that is not the case.

Anne Bronikowski, associate professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology at Iowa State University, was the demographer for the research team. By studying mortality models of human aging along with examining seven wild primate species, researchers have shown that human and non-human primate ageing follows similar patterns.

She said: “Humans have been a bit of an enigma. We live much longer than would be expected based on our body sizes, our morphology, our maturation rates, and our reproduction rates. When comparisons have been made between humans versus lab or domestic animals (such as horses, dogs, rats and mice) humans have had slower rates of ageing than these other species.”

But no one until now had previously brought together detailed data on aging and mortality for multiple wild-living primates, and compared those to data on humans. Researchers found that some primates in the study aged as slowly as humans, while others had low mortality rates similar to human mortality. So humans were not unique in either measure.

No primates, except for humans, had both. Bronikowski added: “Some of these aspects of ageing can be moulded by local hazards and medical intervention. Yet, what determines maximum life span for humans remains unknown.”

The maximum life span for humans is 125 years. Life expectancy for Westerners is 80-plus years for those who reach puberty. That is an increase from around a 40 to 50-year life expectancy when humans lived as hunters and gatherers.

She added: “Since environment and medicine can impact lifespan and aging, the hope is that humans may be able to live healthy lives that are free from the physical deterioration associated with advancing age until close to age of death.

“Comparative studies of different primate species can help us understand where researchers might see evolutionary constraints in ageing and where to apply resources for effective treatments.”

Interestingly the results found that wild male primates, like male humans, die sooner than their female counterparts.

The study was part of a three-year collaboration through the National Science Foundation’s National Evolutionary Synthesis Center and National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.  Researchers looked at capuchin monkeys from Costa Rica, muriqui monkeys from Brazil, baboons and blue monkeys from Kenya, chimpanzees from Tanzania, gorillas from Rwanda, and sifaka lemurs from Madagascar.