, Volume 32, Issue 1, pp 79–84 | Cite as

Female fertility and longevity

  • Joshua MitteldorfEmail author


Does bearing children shorten a woman’s life expectancy? Pleiotropic theories of aging predict that it should, and in particular, the Disposable Soma theory predicts unequivocally that this effect should be inescapable. But many demographic studies, historic and current, have found no such effect. In this context, the Caerphilly cohort study stands apart as the sole test that corroborates the theory. Why has this study found an effect that others fail to see? Their analysis is based on Poisson regression, a statistical technique that is accurate only if the underlying data are Poisson-distributed. But the distribution of the number of children born to women in the Caerphilly database departs strongly from Poisson at the high end. This makes the result overly sensitive to a handful of women with 15 children or more who lived before 1700. When these five women are removed from a database of more than 2,900, the Poisson regression no longer shows a significant result. Bilinear regression relating life span to fertility and date of birth results in a small positive coefficient for fertility, in agreement with the main trend of reported results.


Disposable soma Pleiotropy Senescence Aging Fertility Life history Tradeoff 


  1. Beeton M, Yule GU, Pearson K (1900) On the correlation between duration of life and the number of offspring. Proc Royal Soc B 65:290–305Google Scholar
  2. Bloore J (2000) Peerage CD-ROM, 13th edn. S&N Genealogical Supplies, SalisburyGoogle Scholar
  3. Davey Smith G, Frankel S et al (1997) Sex and death: are they related? Findings from the caerphilly cohort study. BMJ 315(7123):1641–1644PubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Finch CE (1990) Longevity, senescence and the genome. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  5. Gavrilova NS, Gavrilov LA (2005) Human longevity and reproduction: an evolutionary perspective. In: Voland E, Chasiotis A, Schiefenhövel W (eds) Grandmotherhood. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, pp 59–80Google Scholar
  6. Gavrilova NS, Gavrilov LA et al (2004) Does exceptional human longevity come with a high cost of infertility? Testing the evolutionary theories of aging. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1019:513–517CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Grundy E, Kravdal O (2008) Reproductive history and mortality in late middle age among Norwegian men and women. Am J Epidemiol 167(3):271–279CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Kaplan SD (1988) Retrospective cohort mortality study of Roman Catholic priests. Prev Med 17(3):335–343CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Kirkwood T (1977) Evolution of aging. Nature 270:301–304CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Korpelainen H (2000) Fitness, reproduction and longevity among European aristocratic and rural Finnish families in the 1700s and 1800s. Proc Biol Sci 267(1454):1765–1770CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Le Bourg E (2001) A mini-review of the evolutionary theories of aging. Is it the time to accept them? Dem Res 4:1–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Le Bourg E, Thon B et al (1993) Reproductive life of French-Canadians in the 17–18th centuries: a search for a trade-off between early fecundity and longevity. Exp Gerontol 28(3):217–232CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Lycett JE, Dunbar RI et al (2000) Longevity and the costs of reproduction in a historical human population. Proc Biol Sci 267(1438):31–35CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. McArdle PF, Pollin TI et al (2006) Does having children extend life span? A genealogical study of parity and longevity in the Amish. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 61(2):190–195PubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Mitteldorf J (2004) Aging selected for its own sake. Evol Ecol Res 6:1–17Google Scholar
  16. Muller HG, Chiou JM et al (2002) Fertility and life span: late children enhance female longevity. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 57(5):B202–B206PubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Palmore EB (1982) Predictors of the longevity difference: a 25-year follow-up. Gerontologist 22(6):513–518PubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Partridge L, Gems D (2002) Mechanisms of ageing: public or private? Nat Rev Genet 3(3):165–175CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Perls TT, Alpert L et al (1997) Middle-aged mothers live longer. Nature 389(6647):133CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Reznick D, Nunney L et al (2000) Big houses, big cars, superfleas and the costs of reproduction. Trends Ecol Evol 15(10):421–425CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Ricklefs RE, Cadena CD (2007) Lifespan is unrelated to investment in reproduction in populations of mammals and birds in captivity. Ecol Lett 10(10):867–872CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Stearns SC (1992) The evolution of life histories. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  23. Westendorp RG, Kirkwood TB (1998) Human longevity at the cost of reproductive success. Nature 396(6713):743–746CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Williams G (1957) Pleiotropy, natural selection, and the evolution of senescence. Evolution 11:398–411CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© American Aging Association, Media, PA, USA 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA

Personalised recommendations