Monday, August 05, 2013

The bad kind of stress - perceived helplessness

Velasquez-Manoff does a nice discussion of a topic that has been recurrent in MindBlog, understanding the kind of stress that is really bad for us. Not the stress that goes with daily personal and professional aggravations, but the long term stress that derives from feeling helpless to control our lives. Numerous studies, the best known being a long term study of British civil servants, have shown that being higher in a social hierarchy correlates with having better health. The sense of control:
...tends to decline as one descends the socioeconomic ladder, with potentially grave consequences. Those on the bottom are more than three times as likely to die prematurely as those at the top. They’re also more likely to suffer from depression, heart disease and diabetes. Perhaps most devastating, the stress of poverty early in life can have consequences that last into adulthood.
The article quotes Robert Sapolsky at Stanford, whose classic book "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" is still a must read, as saying:
Early-life stress and the scar tissue that it leaves, with every passing bit of aging, gets harder and harder to reverse...You’re never out of luck in terms of interventions, but the longer you wait, the more work you’ve got on your hands.
Bruce McEwen and others talk about
...the “biological embedding” of social status. Your parents’ social standing and your stress level during early life change how your brain and body work, affecting your vulnerability to degenerative disease decades later. They may even alter your vulnerability to infection. In one study, scientists at Carnegie Mellon exposed volunteers to a common cold virus. Those who’d grown up poorer (measured by parental homeownership) not only resisted the virus less effectively, but also suffered more severe cold symptoms.
Another clip:
Animal studies help dispel doubts that we’re really seeing sickly and anxiety-prone individuals filter to the bottom of the socioeconomic heap. In primate experiments females of low standing are more likely to develop heart disease compared with their counterparts of higher standing. When eating junk food, they more rapidly progress toward heart disease. The lower a macaque is in her troop, the higher her genes involved in inflammation are cranked. High-ranking males even heal faster than their lower-ranking counterparts. Behavioral tendencies change as well. Low-ranking males are more likely to choose cocaine over food than higher-ranking individuals.
...while Americans generally gained longevity during the late 20th century, those gains have gone disproportionately to the better-off. Those without a high school education haven’t experienced much improvement in life span since the middle of the 20th century. Poorly educated whites have lost a few years of longevity in recent decades.
A National Research Council report, meanwhile, found that Americans were generally sicker and had shorter life spans than people in 16 other wealthy nations. We rank No. 1 for diabetes in adults over age 20, and No. 2 for deaths from coronary artery disease and lung disease. The Japanese smoke more than Americans, but outlive us — as do the French and Germans, who drink more. The dismal ranking is surprising given that America spends nearly twice as much per capita on health care as the next biggest spender.

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