For Monkeys, Lower Status Affects Immune System

Nov 26, 2016

By Erica Goode

Researchers have long known that social class is one of the most powerful predictors of health, more powerful than genes, smoking, alcohol intake, or other health risks.

The lower a person is on the social ladder — as measured by income, education and other markers of relative status — the higher the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, cancer, psychiatric disorders and a host of other illnesses. One recent study based on income data from 1.4 billion tax records found that people in the top 1 percent income bracket had life expectancies that were as much as 10 to 15 years longer than those in the bottom 1 percent.

But investigators do not know for sure whether lower social status, which often comes with less access to health care, a lack of control over one’s life circumstances and a variety of other stresses, causes people to end up sicker, or whether being less healthy leads to lower social status. And although researchers have speculated how social class might influence health, they still have little evidence for what those mechanisms might be.


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15 comments on “For Monkeys, Lower Status Affects Immune System

  • This is why we need to be considerate towards each other, although I can imagine stress levels rising for many Americans over the next 4 years. Creating battlegrounds in healthcare, civil liberties and immigration is likely to increase health problems.



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  • More junk science distorted through popular media. Any creature subjected to stress would generally show some impairment of its immune system and therefore some increased vulnerability to disease. That’s common sense.

    “Stress” however can refer to multiple sources both major and minor that are highly difficult to measure in their intensities, duration and frequencies and adjusted for variable impacts on different subjects.

    The article begins with a measures of human life expectancy based on socio-economic status ranging from the top 1% to the bottom 1%. Figures for the 98% in between are not given, omitting a comparative continuum to establish an intelligible base. The monkey studies focus on alleged relationships between status and immune system impairments. We need to see life expectancy comparisons which could easily be obtained by observing longitudinal monkey mortality based on dominant and submissive status within the troop hierarchy.

    The author proposes: “But investigators do not know for sure whether lower social status, which often comes with less access to health care, a lack of control over one’s life circumstances and a variety of other stresses, causes people to end up sicker, or whether being less healthy leads to lower social status. And although researchers have speculated how social class might influence health, they still have little evidence for what those mechanisms might be.”

    This thinking is sloppy in the extreme. Obviously for those wretches in the lowest 1% of society, low status and poor health are reciprocally exacerbating conditions. A poor person who gets sick, cannot afford or otherwise will not see a doctor or puts it off until the condition is critical is more likely to die than an affluent individual who can see his GP at a moments notice and treatment specialists in a timely manner as needed. That is common sense. Obviously “lack of access to health care” is a “mechanism (sic)” that influences health, though the author goes on to claim idiotically that researchers have little evidence for making the connection. Proofread what you are saying, yahoo!



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  • Melvin’s very reasonable point about access to healthcare is only part of a complex picture of contributors to health outcomes studied by epidemiologists. The complexity of the health outcome picture is nicely summarised in four models described here

    http://www.healthknowledge.org.uk/public-health-textbook/medical-sociology-policy-economics/4c-equality-equity-policy/inequalities-distribution

    These all have good enough evidence to show they are genuine contributors to the problem.

    Model 3, the Psycho-social Model, is where this study fits in.

    Access to healthcare in socialised countries, where it is free at the point of need, still with strongly unequal health outcomes, is an indicator that this is far from telling the whole story of health inequality. In the UK lower social class patients use primary healthcare disproportionately. (Though secondary healthcare slightly less. This latter does suggest that prevention and pre-emption may be the greater factor and may be Melvin’s further point about accessing healthcare. )

    However, epidemiologists only ever find partial but never complete associations with each of the models, above. (The famous British Civil Servant Health longitudinal studies by UCL showed outcomes by class were only a third predicted by the usual health indicators, for instance.)

    Perhaps the more interesting question is why do high status individuals, living alone have poorer health outcomes.

    Putting aside the rather imprecise phrasing Melvin identifies in the newspaper, I think this study absolutely fascinating and an important jigsaw piece in the mechanism of the psycho-social model factor (for which the epidemiological evidence has been steadily growing). Robert Sapolsky’s hypotheticals that are published with the study are entirely apposite and (Melvin’s point acknowledged) accurately reflected in the NYT piece.

    What I find particularly interesting is that it follows psychologist Nicholas Humphrey’s theory of the placebo effect and turns it on its head. Humphrey hypothesised that our auto immune system never gets turned all the way up to eleven when fighting illness. An auto-immune response is very calorie intensive (raising temperatures to kill bacterial invaders) and we have evolved not to turn the thermostat up to full when parasitised, in case we starve to death as a result. Indeed if we are ill we cannot gather food and will become calorie restricted anyway….unless we are cared for. Feeling cared for, getting little oxytocin hits of being in effect mothered, might signal the immune system that calories may be no problem and to have at it.

    This new study dismisses this possibility in its current form by noting that the “un-mothered” seem super eager to turn the inflammatory thermostat up and get into health problems that way, stimulating (familiar) cortisol compound damage. “I need to get better quickly, as no one will bring me food, so I’ll turn the thermostat up beyond ten” , if pressured genes could talk. Humphrey’s theory might now work backwards. It may just be the neglected become malnourished at times of illness with this over eager inflammatory response compounding the damage. The “mothered” can be more relaxed about recovery and don’t need the desperate strategy of a panicky up to eleven immune response. This panicky behaviour works if applied to the least apparent threat by way of preemption, but if unsuccessful brings about a rapid spiral down. This makes sense in maximally preserving reproduction at the expense of longevity in the face of deprivation.

    So, this may also be an account of the placebo effect. Too much rather than too little immune response, and tempered by a reduced urgency to respond among the pampered awash in oxytocin…

    I can’t wait to read the report proper. The mentions of elevated viral immune response in the “mothered” are particularly intriguing.



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  • Olgun,

    This is not in the least genetic. It is all cultural. How culture can work is by high integrity copying when very young.

    I’m suspicious of this analysis also. More later.



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  • Wait!! Sorry – but I have to say this:

    How can anyone think about monkeys at a time like this? There’s no way around it: What Trump is planning to do looks like a disaster for the planet (and the people and all life – including the monkeys – on it). Specifically, all the fragile progress the world has made on global warming over the past eight years is now in real danger of being blown up.

    Speaking of “blowing up” China is a powerful and unpredictable mega power who owns a chunk of our economy. They also own huge territories in Africa and have industry projects there.

    I have a friend who thinks we are headed for world war with China, and he does this kind of thing for a living. I submit it is even more likely with the crazy Donald Trump at the helm.

    Many other horrors await us, in all likelihood. Trump is appointing THE WORST people.

    This also concerns me: “Mr. Trump’s inclination toward generals in top jobs also runs counter to the credo of civilian control of the military — a constitutionally enshrined principle that some say safeguards the United States from becoming another Pakistan or Turkey, where the military is a political player.” —NY Times



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  • Dan,

    I have a friend who thinks we are headed for world war with China

    Bollocks.

    Trump will turn out to be the best Christmas present the Chinese ever got.

    China owns only 7.8% of American debt. American citizens own over 80%

    The significance of the article is about human fairness and the need for greater active equity. If people understood and acted on this you/we wouldn’t be in this mess now.



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  • OF DENTISTS AND MONKEYS

    From Oral Health 2007: Recent Studies reported in dental literature confirm that dentists are subject to a variety of stress-related physical and emotional problems.
    These problems included an alarmingly high incidence of cardiovascular disease, ulcers, colitis, hypertension, lower back pain, eye strain, marital disharmony, alcoholism, drug addiction, mental depression and suicide.
    STUDIES AND STATISTICS
    * The suicide rate of dentists is more than twice the rate of the general population and almost three times higher than that of other white collar workers.
    * Emotional illness ranks third in order of frequency of health problems amongst dentists, while in the general population it ranks tenth.
    * Coronary disease and high blood pressure are over 25% more prevalent among dentists than in the general population.

    * Dentists suffer psycho-neurotic disorders at a rate of 2 1/2 times greater than physicians.
    * The #1 killer of dentists is stress-related cardiovascular disease.

    For dentists certainly low socio-economic status is not much of a stress factor if my bill for that crown replacement is to be believed!



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  • Dentists.

    I think a Groundhog Day without any progress, trapped by an over-investment in expertise might bring on its existential crises….

    This is why there are four contributing models and varieties of outcomes among the well-to-do.

    Doctors seem equally stressed over here, Melvin, and that may be more the result of facing death and delivering bad news day after day.



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  • Phil

    If this report is more or less true, then marriages must follow suit with little or slow bleed and therefore be genetically determined to some extent, ability wise. I fully agree with the cultural influence and see that as the cause or at least part of the circular effect. The very last sentence talks about a possible solution and how it is high time we take memetic evolution by the short and curlies.



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  • Joking about dentist bills aside, I was trying to illustrate how the causes of stress can be measured
    in almost an infinite number of cases, situations and, activities. Lower social status in human societies would certainly qualify generally as a “cause” of stress. In monkey colonies where animals push and shove; bat and bight each other in close proximity on a daily basis, it stands to reason that submissive subjects suffer more stress than the dominant ones that are abusing the latter physically and threatening them psychologically. In [modern western] human societies, socialized feelings of inferiority and stigmatized subservience combined sometimes with material deprivation will have various components of stress on lower status individuals. It is unlikely that stressful inputs among humans governed by norms of mutual respect would involve much by the way of physical abuse. Monkeys and humans are very different “social animals” and the researchers should have refined their study of the former by making behavioral measurements of corporal punishment dished out by the bosses to their underlings.



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  • But investigators do not know for sure whether lower social status,
    which often comes with less access to health care, a lack of control
    over one’s life circumstances and a variety of other stresses, causes
    people to end up sicker, or whether being less healthy leads to lower
    social status

    Here is one way that illness could means you slide down the social scale.



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