Social Status Boosts

DNA longevity genes

Social Status. Healthy Living Magazine

Social Status. Healthy Living Magazine

Research explains why poor and working class people have higher rates of heart disease and diabetes and it’s not healthcare inequalities

Change social status to positively impact the immune system. Between rich and poor is a decade’s difference in life expectancy, attributed in the popular zeitgeist to healthcare inequalities across the socioeconomic spectrum and lack of access to medical benefits, plus castigating the sinners for their differences in habits such as smoking, exercise and diet.

But economic opportunity impacts genes too, perhaps even more profoundly. A study in rhesus monkeys published in Science finds life at the bottom of society or even one lived sinking from upper to middle or middle to lower or lower to poverty status, and lived without hope, damages the immune system all by its hopeless self.

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Toss in smoking and obesity and your genes are sunk, no matter how resilient. Using female rhesus monkeys housed at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University, the scientists first noted infection sends immune cells of low-ranking monkeys into overdrive, leading to unwanted inflammation. However, improvements in social status or social support can turn things back around.

Rank and Immunity

45 unrelated females who had never met each other were introduced one by one into new social groups. The scientists studied the monkeys for social order by seeing who was bullied, cowered, etc. The researchers took immune cells from the monkeys and measured the activity of roughly 9,000 genes. More than 1,600 of them were expressed differently in lower-ranking than in higher-ranking females, particularly within a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells, an aggressive line of defense against infection.

In the second part of the study, the researchers rearranged the females into nine new social groups. Once again, the females sorted themselves in order of arrival. The first females to join the newly formed groups, as before, ranked higher than latecomers. 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.

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“This suggests the health effects of status aren’t permanent, at least in adulthood,” said study coauthor Jenny Tung, assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology and biology at Duke University.

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.

“A strong inflammatory response can be life-saving in the face of infectious agents,” Barreiro said. But the same self defense mechanisms—the ones that make infected tissue swollen and red—can also cause damage if not properly controlled.

“Social adversity gets under the skin,” said co-author Noah Snyder-Mackler, postdoctoral researcher at Duke.

N. Snyder-Mackler, J. Sanz, J. N. Kohn, J. F. Brinkworth, S. Morrow, A. O. Shaver, J.-C. Grenier, R. Pique-Regi, Z. P. Johnson, M. E. Wilson, L. B. Barreiro, J. Tung. Social status alters immune regulation and response to infection in macaques. Science, 2016; 354 (6315): 1041 DOI: 10.1126/science.aah3580
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