Every summer since the late '70s, Stanford physiologist Robert Sapolsky has traveled to Kenya to study the stressful lives of baboons, whose competitive, stratified society resembles our own. By linking baboons' behavior with their health, he has learned that some individuals handle stress better than others. And those coping strategies from the Serengeti may prove relevant here in the Silicon Valley.
"Some baboons have a Type A personality, and they pay for it in terms of disease," Sapolsky told an audience Feb. 18 at a symposium on stress and health at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The baboons that handle stress best, in contrast, are those who have formed stable social connections.
Over the short term, stress hormones help baboons deal with harsh realities: competition for sexual partners and aggression from bullies, coalitions or beaten animals looking for a third party to pummel. But over the long term, aggression and even psychological stress itself can exact a toll in the form of elevated stress-hormone levels, a poor immune response, elevated resting blood pressure, an unhealthy ratio of "good" to "bad" cholesterol, hardening of the arteries and perhaps even premature death.
Because baboons are rarely threatened by famine, plague or predators, they are good models for socialized disease, Sapolsky says: "Baboon societies are ironically a lot like Westernized humans. We're ecologically privileged enough that we can invent social and psychological stress. Baboons in the Serengeti, who only work three hours a day to meet their caloric needs, are similarly privileged. They ulcerate because of social complexities."
Mental stresses show up in the body. But unlike zebras, whose bodies are well-adapted to dealing with short-term emergencies like running from hungry lions, primates also experience psychological stresses that can elicit physiological responses that, evoked over time
Contact: Dawn Levy