Social hierarchy affects our health and uncertainty of staying at top in this hierarchy may increase the risk of chronic diseases, suggests new research. According to the study, the findings apply to those uncertain at the top of the social hierarchy as also to those uncertain of their status in lower ranking, though the latter may have opportunities for upward mobility and this may be associated with better health.
“Low social status is generally thought to lead to poorer health, yet so many exceptions undermine this apparent association that it is difficult to draw a direct relationship between status and health,” said one of the researchers, Jessica Vandeleest from University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in the US.
Although the experiment was carried out in monkeys, the researchers believe that the findings could one day help doctors learn more about the way that social hierarchy affects the health of humans. For the study, the researchers measured the level of certainty or uncertainty of social status in captive rhesus monkey groups.
They did this by observing how the monkeys interacted with each other — in cases where the monkeys were not interacting directly with other monkeys, their relationships were inferred through mutual social connections.
The team used these indirect connections to decipher the social rank of the animals and how well they fit in the hierarchy.
The researchers discovered that high ranking monkeys with low certainty of their social status showed higher markers of inflammation, which can be a sign of a chronic disease state such as diabetes, than those with very certain status.
So high-ranking monkeys may experience some health risks, but only when their position is questionable and they are consequently at risk of losing their status.
The opposite pattern was found for low ranking monkeys – high dominance certainty was associated with higher markers of inflammation, whereas low certainty was associated with lower levels of inflammatory proteins.
The study, published in the journal PeerJ suggests that uncertainty alone may be a risk factor for acute diseases, and that uncertainty in status over longer periods in relationship to rank are related to chronic disease states as well.