Social status and health: Misery index

Low social status is bad for your health. Biologists are starting to understand why – Published on The Economist, April 14, 2012.

ONCE upon a time the overstressed executive bellowing orders into a telephone, cancelling meetings, staying late at the office and dying of a heart attack was a stereotype of modernity. That was before the Whitehall studies, a series of investigations of British civil servants begun in the 1960s. These studies found that the truth is precisely the opposite. Those at the top of the pecking order actually have the least stressful and most healthy lives. Cardiac arrest—and, indeed, early death from any cause—is the prerogative of underlings.  

Unhappy minds in unhealthy bodies

Dr Tung and Dr Gilad took 49 middle-ranking female macaques (females were chosen because a lot of previous work on animal hierarchies has been done on female macaques) and split them into groups of four or five. The researchers were able to control where in a group an individual ranked by the order in which it was introduced into its group (newly introduced monkeys almost always adopt a role subordinate to existing group members). The hierarchies thus established, the team conducted tests on cells in the monkeys’ blood, in an attempt to determine the effect of a macaque’s rank on her biochemistry and, in particular, on how rank influences the activity of various genes.

The answer is, a lot. Dr Tung and Dr Gilad looked at the expression in each animal of 6,097 genes (30% of the total number in a monkey genome—or, for that matter, in a human one). They were searching for correlations between social rank and gene activity, and in 987 genes they found one. Some genes were more active in high-ranking individuals; others were more active in low-ranking ones. The relationship was robust enough to work the other way round, too. Given a blood sample and no other information, it was possible to predict an individual’s status within her group with an accuracy of 80% … //

… Destiny’s child?

Those who believe in progress will, however, be pleased to know that epigenetics is not necessarily destiny. Methyl groups may help maintain the status quo, but if that status quo is interrupted by outside events they can be wiped away and a new lot put in place.

Dr Tung and Dr Gilad discovered this because a few of their monkeys did change status within their groups. When that happened, changes in gene expression appropriate to the new status quickly followed. Those who do break free from their lowly station, then, may begin to reap the health benefits almost immediately.

As with any animal study, this one cannot simply be mapped straight onto humans. But it does provide pointers that researchers who work on people can use. In particular, the experiment ensured that social rank was the only factor being changed, providing strong evidence that the chain of causality runs from low social status, through a disrupted immune system to worse health, and not the other way around. The best medicine, then, is promotion. Prosper, and live long. (full text).

Links:

Synopsis The CUT, on VeFJO e.V., by Beryl Magoko, March 22, 2012: The Kuria in Kenya and Tanzania are still practicing Female Genital Mutilation FGM as a ritual. It is painful and even dangerous … Watch the photo … (full text).

VeFJO e.V. /Homepage, Verein zur Förderung von Filmemachern und des freien Journalismus in Ostafrika, Gartenstraße 96, 60598 Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Impressum;

Ku Klux Klan still kills at will, by Dr. Ismail Salami, April 13, 2012;

Windfarms do not cause long-term damage to bird populations: Study.

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