Grow Youthful: How to Slow Your Aging and Enjoy Extraordinary Health
Grow Youthful: How to Slow Your Aging and Enjoy Extraordinary Health

Social ranking affects health

Social ranking affects health

The genetic study

Human social studies: success & health

What to do?

References

Social ranking affects health

Those who rank higher tend to be healthier - so long as their social status doesn't decline, according to a study published in April 2012. (1)

The research, which examined groups of monkeys, found that their social status in the group not only affected the individual's own health, but was also passed on to their offspring through their genes.

The correlation between a monkey's social status and some measures of stress, immune response and inflammation was so strong, that using just a blood sample from any monkey, it was possible to predict her status within her group with an accuracy of 80%.

If an individual had a rise in social status in the group, they began to reap the health benefits almost immediately. After a rise in status, formerly low-ranking animals looked genetically like high-ranking ones.

"Our study supports the idea that low social status can be bad for the body. But it hints at the idea that if you improve your social situation, your health improves, too," said the study's lead author Jenny Tung.

The genetic study

The study examined how gene expression patterns across a range of genes correlate with a rhesus macaque's social dominance in her group. The team of researchers looked at gene regulation in 49 female rhesus macaques. Females never leave their birth group, and take on a rank similar to their mothers' status. In contrast, males enter a new group at adolescence, and establish their rank at that time. To test how gene expression would differ when a monkey's rank changed, the scientists took the female macaques from their native groups and put them in ten new groups. Their rank was determined by the order in which they were added to the new group - later entrants were lower-ranked.

The researchers looked at 6,097 genes (30% of the total number in a monkey genome - and human genome too). They were searching for correlations between social rank and gene activity, and in 987 genes they found a correlation. Some of these genes were more active in high-ranking individuals; others were more active in low-ranking ones.

Low-status monkeys had lower levels of some types of T cell in their blood, and showed signs of exposure to chronic stress.

Epigenetics - currently one of molecular biology's hottest topics - is a process by which genes are activated or deactivated by the presence or absence of chemical structures known as acetyl and methyl groups. This study confirmed that methylation patterns were different in animals with high or low status in their group.

Low-rank individuals had genes that tended to promote inflammation and various immune responses. Such chronic generalised inflammation is a risk factor for a long list of degenerative diseases and ailments ranging from heart disease to Alzheimer's disease.

Human social studies: success & health

Professor Michael Marmot has shown that your position in the social hierarchy has a strong and direct effect on your length of life and state of health. (2) Living in a large house in a beautiful and safe neighbourhood, being wealthy, working in a managerial position, being tall and attractive, having many positive social relationships, being well educated, and generally having a prestigious high-status life are all strongly correlated with health and longevity.

Conversely, as you move down the social ladder, your health and longevity deteriorate. Those at the bottom of the heap, even in the developed world with sufficient food, shelter and clothing, suffer markedly shorter lives and higher levels of sickness. The disadvantages of being lower class and having less compared with others around them, weigh heavily on life. They die younger and have higher risks of most diseases, as well as suicides, accidents and violent deaths.

It is not the absolute level of wealth that you have that matters. Rather, it is how much you have, and how well you are doing compared to those around you.

Marmot proposes that there are two reasons why your position in society is important. Firstly, if you are at the top you have more autonomy or control over your life. Secondly, the higher up you are, the more opportunities you have for "full social engagement and participation."

What to do?

In Grow Youthful I discuss how the ego is concerned with social status, and drives most of what nearly everyone does every minute of their day. Striving for power and prestige is not a recipe for health and long life, and is NOT the same as enjoying success and mastery of your life values (as opposed to desires) and the life areas that are important to you.

References

1. Jenny Tung, Luis B. Barreiro, Zachary P. Johnson, Kasper D. Hansen, Vasiliki Michopoulos, Donna Toufexis, Katelyn Michelini, Mark E. Wilson, and Yoav Gilad. Social environment is associated with gene regulatory variation in the rhesus macaque immune system. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 9, 2012 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1202734109.

2. Marmot, Michael. Status Syndrome. Bloomsbury, 2004.