Scientists, who included British researchers from the RSPCA and Zoological Society of London, examined data on more than 4,500 African and Asian elephants.
Those housed in European zoos had life spans up to three times shorter than animals from an African wildlife park or those working in the logging industry in Burma.
Zoo elephants were more susceptible to both mental and physical ailments, the study showed.
Being born in a zoo had a particularly striking effect on Asian elephants, the most at-risk species. They died at a much younger age than animals captured in the wild and brought to zoos.
The study focused exclusively on female elephants and included about half the global zoo population from 1960 to 2005.
For African elephants, animals in the middle of the survival range had a life span of 16.9 years in zoos compared with 56 years for those dying from natural causes in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.
The average life span for Asian elephants was 18.9 years for animals born in zoos, and 41.7 years for those in the Burmese logging industry.
The findings were reported yesterday in the journal Science. Professor Georgia Mason, from the University of Guelph in Canada, said: “We suspect this study has implications for all zoo elephants.”
She pointed out that in the wild, both African and Asian elephants ranged across tens or even hundreds of square kilometres. In contrast, the typical zoo enclosure covered less than one square kilometre.
Wild elephants also lived in matriarch-led family groups of four to 12 related individuals, whereas a zoo might keep two to four unrelated animals. Natural populations tended to be stable, but captive elephants were often moved between zoos.
The scientists recommended that all zoo elephants should be screened for signs of stress and obesity. They also called for the minimising of inter-zoo transfers, and breeding only to take place in zoos that exhibit no harmful effects on captive- born animals.