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Life history trade-offs associated with exposure to low maternal capital are different in sons compared to daughters: Evidence from a prospective Brazilian birth cohort.

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Wells, Jonathan CK 
Cole, Tim J 
Cortina-Borja, Mario 
Sear, Rebecca 
Leon, David A 


BACKGROUND: Environmental exposures in early life explain variability in many physiological and behavioural traits in adulthood. Recently, we showed that exposure to a composite marker of low maternal capital explained the clustering of adverse behavioural and physical traits in adult daughters in a Brazilian birth cohort. These associations were strongly mediated by whether or not the daughter had reproduced by the age of 18 years. Using evolutionary life history theory, we attributed these associations to trade-offs between competing outcomes, whereby daughters exposed to low maternal capital prioritised investment in reproduction and defence over maintenance and growth. However, little is known about such trade-offs in sons. METHODS: We investigated 2,024 mother-son dyads from the same birth cohort. We combined data on maternal height, body mass index, income, and education into a composite "maternal capital" index. Son outcomes included reproductive status at the age of 18 years, growth trajectory, adult anthropometry, body composition, cardio-metabolic risk, educational attainment, work status, and risky behaviour (smoking, violent crime). We tested whether sons' early reproduction and exposure to low maternal capital were associated with adverse outcomes and whether this accounted for the clustering of adverse outcomes within individuals. RESULTS: Sons reproducing early were shorter, less educated, and more likely to be earning a salary and showing risky behaviour compared to those not reproducing, but did not differ in foetal growth. Low maternal capital was associated with a greater likelihood of sons' reproducing early, leaving school, and smoking. High maternal capital was positively associated with sons' birth weight, adult size, and staying in school. However, the greater adiposity of high-capital sons was associated with an unhealthier cardio-metabolic profile. CONCLUSION: Exposure to low maternal investment is associated with trade-offs between life history functions, helping to explain the clustering of adverse outcomes in sons. The patterns indicated future discounting, with reduced maternal investment associated with early reproduction but less investment in growth, education, or healthy behaviour. However, we also found differences compared to our analyses of daughters, with fewer physical costs associated with early reproduction. Exposure to intergenerational "cycles of disadvantage" has different effects on sons vs. daughters, hence interventions may have sex-specific consequences.


Peer reviewed: True

Acknowledgements: The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR, or the UK Department of Health.


education, growth, inter-generational effect, life history theory, maternal investment, obesity, reproduction, trade-offs, Adolescent, Adult, Birth Cohort, Brazil, Female, Humans, Male, Nuclear Family, Prospective Studies, Reproduction

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Front Public Health

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Frontiers Media SA