Low social status ‘damages immune function’ – NHS Choices

 In Health

Friday November 25 2016

Does being at the bottom of the social ladder cause direct damage at the cellular level?

Poverty and poor health are known to be linked

“Simply being at the bottom of the social heap directly alters the body,” BBC News reports. The headline is based on a study in which researchers used female monkeys to simulate social hierarchies.

Monkeys of low social status were found to have biomarkers indicating poor immune function and possible increased vulnerability to infection.

The researchers arranged the monkeys into social groups and observed behaviours for two years to determine the social hierarchy. They then “mixed-up” the groups so that some of the monkeys were introduced into other groups as the “new girl”. This effectively meant that the “newbie monkey” was stripped of all social status.

They then took blood samples to look at any effect this had on the immune system. The study found that social rankings in the monkey groups had an effect on white blood cells involved in fighting off disease. These findings suggested that the stress of a lower social ranking may increase inflammation and reduce resistance to infection and illness.

Although this study was specific to monkeys, the researchers argue that these findings are also applicable to humans. We do, after all, share much of our DNA with them.

Still, social status is a subjective concept not an objective fact. It only matters if you let it matter. As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.


Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from a number of international institutions in the US, Canada and Kenya, including Duke University, Emory University, the Universite de Montreal, and the Institute of Primate Research in Nairobi.

It was funded by grants, including one from the Canada Research Chairs Program.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Science.

BBC News and the Mail Online’s reporting were fairly accurate. Although both outlets were quick to apply the findings to humans without highlighting the fact that social hierarchies, and their resulting influences in primates, may be different to those found in humans.

It could be the case that the primates in question – rhesus monkeys – were more sensitive to loss of social status than humans would be.


What kind of research was this?

This was an animal study which aimed to investigate how social status influences the immune system in captive adult female rhesus macaques.

Evidence has shown that social status is one of the strongest predictors of disease and death in humans. As rhesus macaques naturally form linear hierarchies (social groups where there is a clear pattern of rank), this study wanted to investigate the potential effects of social status by further exploring if and how it alters the immune system on a genetic level.

Animal studies are useful early stage research, especially in primates due to their biological similarity to humans. However, the social hierarchies observed in monkeys are not necessarily representative of those seen in humans.


What did the research involve?

The researchers conducted their investigation using 45 adult female rhesus macaques in captivity. In captivity, it’s possible to manipulate the social hierarchies formed in these monkeys by the order in which the monkeys are introduced to new social groups. The monkeys were all unrelated and had never met each other before.

Nine groups containing five monkeys each were formed and these groups were maintained and observed (phase one). The monkeys were ranked where a higher status corresponded to a higher value. Social status was determined by observing whether an individual female was groomed by other monkeys (seen as a sign of high status) or conversely, harassed by other monkeys (a sign of low status).

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