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Could your social status affect your immune system?


Studies show that the life expectancy can vastly differ between people of high and low wealth, attributed to access to medical care, differences in habits, exercise and diet, but the stress of living with a lower social status could potentially affect your immune system.

A study of monkeys was undertaken after previous studies suggest that social status could affect the way genes switch on and off within immune cells. The new study, which was undertaken at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University in Georgia, looked at female rhesus monkeys.

The scientists put 45 unrelated monkeys that had never met into new social groups, and watched how the monkeys treated each other to see who did the bullying and who cowered.

The monkeys in the newly created groups formed a pecking order of seniority, with those who were introduced to the groups earlier usually ranking higher than those who came later.

The immune cells were then taken from the monkeys and measured the activity of around 9,000 genes. More than 1,600 of them were different in lower-ranking than higher-ranking monkeys, particularly in a type of white blood cell, natural killer cells, which is the first line of defense against an infection.

In the second part of the study, the researchers rearranged the females into nine new groups. As with the first part of the study, the females sorted themselves in order of arrival.

In the re-sorting, the researchers made females that were previously high on the dominance ladder move down one or more rungs, and those that were low were moved up.

Those whose status improved became more sought-after grooming partners once they were promoted, giving them more opportunities to relieve stress through bonding.

The immune cells of formerly low-ranking females also became more like high-ranking females, in terms of which genes were turned on or off, when they improved their social standing.

Study co-author Jenny Tung, from Duke University, explained the results suggest the health effects of status aren’t permanent in adulthood, and the results provide some evidence that low social status leads to poorer health, not just the other way around.

The differences between higher- and lower-ranking females were even more pronounced when their immune systems were triggered to fight a potential Infection.

When the animals’ white blood cells were mixed in test tubes with a bacterial toxin called lipopolysaccharide, or LPS, pro-inflammatory genes in the cells from lower-ranking females went into overdrive.

Similar responses could help explain why poor and working class people have higher rates of inflammatory disorders such as heart disease and diabetes, said study co-author Luis Barreiro, assistant professor of immunogenomics at the University of Montreal.


“Social adversity gets under the skin,” said co-first author Noah Snyder-Mackler, researcher at Duke University. “If we can help people improve their social standing, and reduce some of these hierarchies, we may be able to improve people’s health and well-being.”

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