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Life at the Top Can Be Good for Your Health

from ScienceNOW Daily News

Many studies in humans and animals suggest that chronic stress is bad for one's health, in part because it suppresses the immune system. But nearly 30 years of data on wild baboons shows that top-ranking males, despite showing signs of increased stress, recover more quickly than low-ranking baboons from wounds and illness. The results may help explain why some people escape from the negative effects of stress while others do not.

Most studies in humans have shown a clear correlation between higher socioeconomic status and lower risk of death or illness from stress-related diseases such as heart attacks and diabetes. Some of the most famous of these are the so-called Whitehall studies of the British Civil Service, which showed that death and illness rates decreased in a step-wise fashion the higher an employee was on the service's 6-grade pay and responsibility scale. These and other studies also have found that being at the bottom of the totem pole leads to greater stress as a result of increased work loads and time pressures, as well as more job insecurity.

But studies of animals, especially other primates, have shown that the relationship between stress and status largely depends on the social organization of the species in question. For example, in species such as baboons that have rigid social rankings and hierarchies, with so-called alpha males dominating other males and females over extended periods of time, it can apparently be more stressful at the top. In a study reported last year in Science, a team that included ecologist Jeanne Altmann of Princeton University revealed that baboon alpha males had the highest levels of glucocorticoid hormones, such as cortisol, as well as testosterone in their feces, indicators that they were under greater stress than lower-ranking individuals.

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