Simply being at the bottom of the social heap directly alters the body in ways that can damage health, a study at Duke University in the US suggests. Monkey experiments showed low status alters the immune system in a way that raises the risk of heart disease, diabetes and mental health problems. One expert said the findings were “terrifically applicable” to people. The findings, in Science, had nothing to do with the unhealthy behaviours that are more common in poorer groups. The gulf in life expectancy between the richest and poorest is huge – in the US it is more than a decade for women and 15 years for men. Part of the explanation is that people from poorer backgrounds are more likely to have a worse lifestyle – including smoking, little exercise and diets containing junk food. But the latest study goes further to show low status – with all of those other factors stripped out – still has an impact on the body.
Looking at 45 non-human primates allowed scientists to adjust only social status to assess its impact – something impossible to do in people. The captive Rhesus monkeys – who were all female, unrelated and had never met before – were divided one-by-one into nine new groups of five. The newest member nearly always ended up at the bottom of the social order and became “chronically stressed”, received less grooming and more harassment from the other monkeys. A detailed analysis of the monkeys’ blood showed 1,600 differences in the activity levels of genes involved in running the immune system between those at the top and bottom. It had the impact of making the immune system run too aggressively in those at the bottom. High levels of inflammation cause collateral damage to the body to increase the risk of other diseases.