Paying Your Way to a Longer Life
> 4/7/2006 2:10:32 PM

A couple of weeks ago, the name Robert Sapolsky blipped across my radar screen. A Stanford neuroscientist as well as best-selling author, Sapolsky has gained a reputation as an engaging speaker. I encountered him while perusing the blogging mecca that is Boing-Boing, where a contributor linked to Sapolsky's lectures that are available free through iTunes.

Today, Sapolsky blipped back into my radar when I clicked through to an article from called "Why the Rich Live Longer." The piece is an interesting one that draws on work that Sapolsky talks about in his iTunes lectures as well as writes about in his 2004 book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. The central question here is proposed in the title of the piece: why do the rich live longer?

The answer comes in two varieties, the first intuitive, and the second, espoused by Salopsky and others, much less so. There are some things that everyone agrees on however. Mainly, being dirt poor is bad. The life expectancy of a child born into poverty in central Africa is much lower than that of a child born into wealth on the upper west side of Manhattan. This line of thought extends to the first view of why the rich live longer, which is that material comfort allows for a longer life. Basically, folks who make a lot of money can afford to buy the best care, the healthiest foods, the best fitness equipment and so on and so on. This makes a lot of sense, and is probably the view that most folks have.

But lately, researcher who run more in line with Sapolsky have posited a different idea on why those with funds outlive those of us without. Their basic argument is that our social positions, decided on almost exclusively by wealth, dictate our level of stress, and this stress in turn will kill us more quickly than our higher status acquaintances.

Forbes explains further:

The idea that health problems are exacerbated by psychological stress caused by being less wealthy than others is particularly appealing to researchers like Sapolsky, who has spent much of his career doing primate research. That is because our closest animal relatives--monkeys and chimps--live and die based on their place in the pecking order. Carol Shively, who studies rhesus monkeys at Wake Forest University, says the dominant monkeys live longer, even when access to resources is controlled. Shively also found that if monkeys were forced to change their position in the hierarchy, they all died early. The stress of the change was too much for them.

If you have a chance to listen to his lectures or read some of his writing, Sapolsky does a great job of fleshing out this hypothesis with funny anecdotes and rhetorical flair. The trouble, as Forbes notes, is that proving either side of the argument would be near impossible, and when it comes down to it, the answer is probably somewhere in between the two points of view (or rather, in humans, each position is so intricately wrapped in the other that a scientific study would be near impossible). For the time being then it is a fun debate, and one that will continue to drive study, because let's be honest, while we all might envy and despise the exorbitantly wealthy, we also want to know their secrets.

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