It's a Stressful Life for Baboons, Humans

When it comes to stress for baboons and people it's all about hierarchy.

Sept. 22, 2008 — -- Baboons are aggressive, mean-spirited and wild. And when it comes to stress, apparently they are just like humans.

Stanford University neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky has been decoding the mysteries of stress by studying baboons from Kenya's plains, and he discovered that the animal's rank as a leader or a follower had a direct link to the level of stress hormones in its system.

"You're a baboon and you only have to spend about three hours a day getting your calories," Sapolsky said. "You've got nine hours of free time every day to devote to making somebody else just miserable."

The Truth About Baboons and People

Sapolsky's research uncovered that dominant males had the lowest stress levels, while submissive baboons were in worse health with increased heart rates and higher blood pressure.

"Basically if you're a stressed unhealthy baboon in a typical troop," Sapolsky said, "you have an immune system that doesn't work as well. Your brain chemistry is one that bears some similarity to what you see in clinically depressed humans."

And for the baboons, the stress isn't just coming from the daily trials and tribulations of living in the wild.

"They're not being stressed by lions chasing them all the time. They are being stressed by each other." Sapolsky said. "They're a perfect model for westernized stress related disease."

British professor Sir Michael Marmot, who studied the health of civil servants, said the similarities between the baboon troop and humans are startling.

"It showed that the lower you were in the hierarchy, the higher your risk of heart disease and other disease," Marmot said.

In his research Marmot studied Kevin Brooks, a man low on the totem pole and whose work stress literally has made him sick.

"Out of the last three years at work, I've been off sick for probably half that time," Brooks said.

What It All Means

"The Keekerok troop is the one I started with 30 years ago," he said. "[Then] something horrific and scientifically very interesting happened to that troop."

The troop of baboons had taken to foraging for food in the garbage dump of a tourist lodge and ate meat that was tainted with tuberculosis. Nearly half the males died. But exactly who had died was surprising.

"In that troop, if you were aggressive and if you were not particularly socially connected," Sapolsky said. "you died."

"What you were left with was twice as many females as males and the males who were remaining were, you know, just to use the scientific jargon, they were good guys," he added.

The troop was transformed on the inside as well.

"Do these guys have the same problems with high blood pressure? Nope. Do these guys have the same problems with brain chemistry related to anxiety, stress hormone levels? Not at all," Sapolsky said.

It all boils down to one point.

"Give people more involvement in their work, give them more say in what they're doing, give them more reward for the amount of effort they put out and it might well be that you'll have not just a healthier workplace, but a more productive one as well," Marmot said.