Saturday, April 11, 2009

Natgeo and PBS air film "Stress: Portrait of a Killer"

On March 31, 2009 PBS broadcast a one-hour National Geographic film “Stress: Portrait of a Killer,” featuring the work of wildlife researcher Robert Sapolsky. The link is here. The film was first shown in the fall of 2008.

The two most important pieces of research included British civil servants, and baboons and macaque monkeys. Baboons impose social stress with their own social hierarchy. Researchers find that those highest on the social chain have the fewest stress hormones. Similar findings were made with British civil servants, relative to their status at work. A cardiologist drove through Richmond, CA, with incomes of various levels, and noted that life expectancies in lower income areas are less because of the effect of stress hormones on the cardiovascular system.

Stress hormones affect the length of telomeres at the end of human chromosomes.

Another experiment was done with a baboon troop that lost many of its alpha males to tuberculosis after eating contaminated food. The dominant males that were left were “good guy” males, and the nature of the community became “kinder and gentler.”

Parents who must raise disabled or autistic children face higher levels of stress and were shown to age faster biologically. Probably the same would be found for many caregivers of the elderly.

When mothers give birth under stressful conditions, the babies have higher levels of stress hormones, as was found in a Dutch study.

Stomach or gastric ulcers are related to stress indirectly. With stress, the immune system is less effective, allowing Helicobacter pylori to proliferate.

The relationship between stress and social position is troubling. In a “meritocracy”, people tend to correlate social position with moral qualities, as a measure of the person’s competitive worth. Yet this conveys a certain paradox: social organizations – most of all, families – are supposed to take care of their own.

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