Sapolsky: Stress may cause premature death
Noting that most of the audience “would probably rather be filling out applications for Canadian citizenship,” famed neuroendocrinologist and anthropologist Dr. Robert Sapolsky spoke in the Craig Lecture Hall this Wednesday on the molecular effects of stress.
In a lecture titled “Stress and Health from the Molecule to Society,” Sapolsky discussed his work over the last three decades in the fields of endocrinology, neurology and anthropological field studies on Kenyan baboons. The author of several nonfiction books on his studies, he is a fellow at Stanford.
According to Sapolsky, humans living in industrialized countries should be honored to die of heart attacks, cancer, strokes and diabetes. While our ancestors as few as 100 years ago died commonly from childbirth, smallpox, influenza, blood poisoning, etc., the diseases that kill westerners today are diseases of “slow accumulation of damage to body systems.” Sapolsky’s key message is that high stress levels make humans more vulnerable to modern killers.
Primate responses to stress are based in the production of a class of hormones known as glucocorticoids, produced in the adrenal glands. These include the ubiquitous epinephrine, commonly known as adrenaline. Findings in Sapolsky’s lab have shown that when a human neuron is continuously flushed with these hormones in response to a stress situation, neuronal death or death of brain cells results.
Sapolsky is not only known for his studies of stress at the molecular level. Every year, he travels to Kenya to observe plains baboons behaving in complex social rituals. These rituals and the resulting stress experienced by the baboons reveal key lessons about the ways in which humans experience stress.
The most long-lived baboons, according to Sapolsky, are those that best avoid stress. They live in stable societies, enjoy social outlets, are able to handle confrontations without becoming “stressed out” and have assertive, but realistic, attitudes vis-à-vis their social status. Baboons that deviate from this description lead less healthy, less happy lives.
Humans, relatives of these primates, can learn a great deal from the
mechanics of baboon stress that Sapolsky has studied. After all, many of the
habits that make for a healthy baboon are already “common knowledge”
ways for people to lead healthy lives: fulfilling relationships, stability and
an understanding of the “big picture.” Sapolsky concluded his
lecture with the sentiment that as intelligent, resourceful primates, humans
should be able to put this understanding of healthier ways to live low-stress to