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Social Climbers

By Lisa Newbern

Social ClimbersThe richest and poorest Americans differ in life expectancy by more than a decade.

Health inequalities are often attributed to access to medical care and differences in habits, such as smoking, exercise, and diet. A new study in rhesus monkeys shows that the chronic stress of life at the bottom can alter the immune system, even in the absence of other risk factors.

The research confirms animal studies suggesting that social status affects the way genes turn on and off within immune cells. The new study, which ran in the November 25 issue of Science, shows that the effects are reversible.

By studying adult female rhesus monkeys at Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, the team found that infection sends immune cells of low-ranking monkeys into overdrive, leading to inflammation, but improvements in social status or support can turn things around.

If similar molecular mechanisms underlie the link between social status and health in humans, interventions that improve a person’s support network could be just as important as drugs for mitigating the health costs of low status, says co-author Mark Wilson, Emory professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and part of Yerkes’ Division of Developmental and Cognitive Neuroscience.


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