Research by Jay R. Kaplan, Ph.D., professor of comparative medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and professor of anthropology at Wake Forest University will be featured in the latest episode of Scientific American Frontiers on public television. The show titled “Worried Sick,” explores the ill effects of stress on health and healing.
The body’s physiological reaction to stress—the fight-or-flight response—releases hormones that increase blood pressure and heart rate while quickly mobilizing extra energy. In most mammals it takes a life-or-death threat to trigger this response.
However, in primates—the biological family that includes humans, apes and monkeys—psychological stress is enough.
The wild macaque monkey lives in large groups in which social hierarchy is established through stressful competition.
Relationships are not random, but are determined by each monkey’s personality. At Wake Forest, Kaplan makes use of the macaques’ natural competitiveness to explore the links among personality, stress and cardiovascular disease.
In a series of experiments, Kaplan brought together small groups of male macaques. As they established hierarchies, Kaplan monitored each animal’s stress hormone levels. A surprising fact emerged: the dominant, not the subordinate, monkeys experienced more stress.
The stressed-out macaques developed twice the atherosclerosis as the subordinate animals. Kaplan says the frequent surges in heart rate and blood pressure brought on by stress are enough to damage arteries and allow artery-clogging plaques to build up.
The program is scheduled to air Tuesday, June 3 at 9 p.m. on PBS. (Check local listings.)
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