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High Social Status Can Boost Your Immune System

Update Date: May 24, 2012 01:13 AM EDT

A sound mind in a sound body is an old and accepted wisdom. However, a recent study suggests that the theory can work the other way too. It seems that having a sound mind and a good self esteem can boost one's immunity and health.

A study conducted by University of Notre Dame biologist Beth Archie and colleagues from Princeton and Duke found that, high-ranking male baboons recover more quickly from injuries and fall sick less often when compared to other males.

For the study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers examined health records from the Amboseli Baboon Research Project in Kenya.

The findings suggested that high ranking among baboons was associated with faster recovery from wounds. Social ranking was a better predictor of wound healing than age. The finding however is a little surprising considering that high ranking males also experience higher stress levels, which normally negatively affects the immune responses.

"In humans and animals, it has always been a big debate whether the stress of being on top is better or worse than the stress of being on the bottom," said Archie, lead researcher of the study. "Our results suggest that, while animals in both positions experience stress, several factors that go along with high rank might serve to protect males from the negative effects of stress."

The results of the study were drawn after the examination of 27 years of data on naturally occurring illness and injuries at a baboon sanctuary in Amboseli in Kenya.

During the study, how differences in age, physical condition, stress, reproductive effort and testosterone levels contribute to status-related differences in immune functions was studied by the researchers. Previous research has suggested that high testosterone levels and intense reproductive efforts suppress immune function and this was found to be highest in top-ranking males. However the recent research proved otherwise.

The authors further suggest that in low-ranking males, chronic stress, old age and poor physical condition may suppress immune function.

"The complex interplay among social context, physiology and immune system-mediated health costs and benefits illustrates the power of interdisciplinary research," said Carolyn Ehardt, National Science Foundation (NSF) program director for biological anthropology, which co-funded the research. "This research begins to tease apart the trade-offs in both high and low status in primates, including ourselves, which may lead to understanding the effects of social status on death and disease -- not inconsequential for society as a whole."

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