Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Stress and Health

I was listening to an interview with Stanford neurologist Robert Sapolsky on NPR a few weeks back and it really struck me. Sapolsky who studies the relation between the neurological and the social in primates told a fascinating story in discussing his latest book, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers.

He pointed to the well-known relation between wealth and health. The usual explanation, that more money means more access to health care and higher quality health care, he argued, is belied by the fact that we see the same thing in European countries with socialized health care systems. Everyone has the same access to the same health care, yet it still holds true that the better off financially, the better off physically. Why?

He contends that the answer is class-related stress; the lower you are on the pecking order, the more stressful your life, and the more stressful your life, the worse your health. He used an anecdote to illustrate the point. He discussed a group of mountain gorillas that lived close to a human settlement. Gorillas have a strict social hierarchy based on and maintained by physical aggression. As a result, he contends, great stress and stress related health problems that are more frequent among those lower on the social ladder. Through interaction with humans, the more aggressive males had all been killed in interactions with humans, leaving the troop with only females and less aggressive males. The result, he contended was a new culture in the troop which was more egalitarian and gentle. Newcomers were socialized into this structure and as a result fewer health problems were found among this group than in troops of comparable size that have the usual hierarchical structure.

Is this a fair argument? Of course, there are many, many other factors at play, but can we point to the artificial stress of contemporary life as one of the more significant threats to public health or is it overstated?