Editor's Note variety

What Old Monkeys and Old Humans Have in Common


Humans spend less time monkeying around as they get older, and according to a study published Thursday, so do monkeys.

As anyone who has ever hung out with a grandparent, observed a retiring parent, or grown old themselves may know, many people get pickier with age. Some go to the same restaurants on the same days every week, some get cranky around too many strangers and instead of playing outside with the grandkids, some watch TV silently. While it’s pretty clear that monkeys aren’t humans — we’re distant relatives, separated by 25 million years of evolution — monkeys too, tend to become less social with age.


A “retirement age” female Barbary macaque. That humans and monkeys share pickiness in older age may suggest some biological origin to the behavior. CreditJulia Fischer/German Primate Center

“This clearly tells us that we, as humans, are not unique in the way we age socially but that there might be an evolutionary ‘deep’ root in this pattern,” said Alexandra Freund, a developmental psychologist at the University of Zurich who worked on the study published in Current Biology. How human behavior changes as we age could therefore have some biological origins.

Dr. Freund, along with Julia Fischer, who studies primate cognition at the German Primate Center in Goettingen, Germany, and their colleagues, wanted to know how age influenced the behavior of more than 100 Barbary macaque monkeys living in an enclosed 50-acre park in southern France. They studied how the monkeys, ranging in age from 4 to 29 (which is about 105 in human years, according to Dr. Fischer), responded to physical objects like novel toys and tubes baited with food; social interactions like grooming “friends” or fighting; and social information, like photos or calls of “friends” and “strangers.”

The researchers found that the monkeys’ interest in toys waned when they became reproductive. And around 20, (their “retirement age”) monkeys, like humans, had fewer social contacts and approached others less frequently. What surprised the researchers is that this apparent withdrawal wasn’t driven by a social tendency to avoid old monkeys: Younger monkeys still approached and groomed their elders. And it wasn’t that older monkeys just weren’t interested in anything: They still responded to photos of other monkeys and hissed at others during fights. “They are still very much tuned into what’s going on,” said Dr. Fischer. “But they don’t want to participate themselves.”

Dr. Freund said she sees the same behavior patterns in humans.

The dominant psychological theory to explain this in people is that we become more choosy with age in order to maximize the use of the time we have left with death in sight. While monkeys have excellent memories, there is no evidence that they are aware of their impending deaths. So if both humans and monkeys act similarly, perhaps this theory is just a way of rationalizing a natural behavior with biological roots, said Dr. Fischer.

Perhaps monkeys and humans just lose stamina with age, and maybe the monkeys are too tired to deal with relationships that are ambivalent or negative, she added. Or maybe, as the researchers are now trying to investigate, aging monkeys are less socially interactive because they tend to take fewer risks, which is what appears to happen in humans according to some research.

Whatever the reason behind the behavior of these distantly-related species is, there’s a take-home message for humans: “Our behaviors that seem very much the result of our deliberation and choice,” said Dr. Freund, “might be more similar to our primate ancestors than we might think.”