C&B Notes

The Hierarchical Health Effect of Stress

A series of studies have found that the impact of stress is moderated (if not largely overcome) by personal success, particularly elevated social status.

Numerous studies of human longevity in developed countries have found that psychosocial factors such as stress are the single most important variable in determining the length of a life.  It’s not that genes and risk factors like smoking don’t matter.  It’s that our levels of stress typically matter more.

And yet, according to a study led by a scientist at the University of Notre Dame, those baboons with the most power suffer from the fewest illnesses and are three times more likely to recover from an injury than those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

This groundbreaking research — the result of 27 years of tracking primates in the wild — suggests that the problem isn’t chronic stress per se.  Rather, it’s the way that stress interacts with our social status, which is why chronic anxiety is so much more deadly for those at the bottom of the pecking order.

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But the Whitehall results aren’t a straightforward analysis of stress, at least not as it’s usually defined.  Like those alpha-male baboons, people in leadership positions are often subject to extreme amounts of pressure.  They work longer hours and have more responsibilities than those at the bottom of the bureaucracy.

So why wasn’t their stress deadly?  To explain this anomaly, Dr. Marmot coined the “demand-control” model of stress, in which the damage caused by chronic stress depends not just on the demands of the job but on the extent to which people can control their response to those demands.