The Study of Social Animals Can Inform Social Determinants of Health and Aging in Humans

The connection between social environment and human health has been well-documented over the past decade. But, humans are not the only animals that depend on social networks. What can we learn from other animal groups about the effect of social adversity or cohesiveness on overall health and aging?

That’s the question that an esteemed, multidisciplinary and inter-institutional team set out to answer in their review, “Social Determinants of Health and Survival in Humans and Other Animals,” featured in the latest edition of Science. Alessandro Bartolomucci, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology at the University of Minnesota Medical School, was part of this large collaboration that began as an effort led by Duke, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest University. The publication reviews key themes, emerging parallels and insights from studies of social mammals in the context of observations first made in human populations.

The study of the social environment and its effect on human health often includes researchers and scientists from across the social and natural sciences. Social scientists are interested in developing innovative health policy, evolutionary biologists are interested in origins of sociality and biomedical scientists are interested in the mechanisms of how social determinants affect diseases and aging. Dr. Bartolomucci and his team bring a productive history of studying the effects of social stress and adversity in mouse models to show physiological linkages between those experiences and disease progression to the study. The convergence of these various scientific approaches provides a better perspective on the social determinants of health and health disparities.

“Our team had something unique to bring to this diverse group of social and population scientists and evolutionary biologists—direct causal evidence of the contribution of social adversity on disease outcomes and lifespan in a mouse model of chronic social stress,” Dr. Bartolomucci said. 

Although the connection between social environment and health in humans and a few mammals in natural settings is well-established, controlled experimental studies of social primates and rodents are fairly recent. As the review points out, evidence is now accumulating to support the importance of studying animal models as a key to understanding the physiological connection between social adversity, stress and cohesiveness with disease progression and outcomes. 

Dr. Bartolomucci and his team have been on the forefront of this work and have a growing body of research studying the effects of social adversity on various diseases in mouse models. A chronic social stress model developed by the Bartolomucci Lab has been used to study how negative social stress—like aggression and bullying—impacts health. Specifically, they focused on metabolic and cardiovascular diseases, including hypertension, and most recently, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD).  

“Our research is trying to bridge the gap between the social determinants of health and physiological mechanisms associated with diseases and aging,” Dr.Bartolomucci. “This approach is gaining momentum, and a growing number of scientists are starting to appreciate that animal models can replicate some of the complex social relationships and health observed in humans, and allow the development of controlled experimental designs that cannot be applied in humans.”

In addition to a number of grants underway to continue this type of research, the Bartolomucci Lab recently announced the launch of a new National Institute on Aging-supported network: the “Animal Models for the Social Dimensions of Health and Aging Research Network” in collaboration with two of the co-authors of the Science review, Jenny Tung, associate professor of Evolutionary Anthropology, Duke University, and Kathleen M. Harris, professor of Sociology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This NIH-supported High Priority Research Network supports research, mentorship and training activities to integrate animal models into studies of the social dimensions of health and aging across the life course. To support the next generation of scientists who will propel this work forward, the network just introduced the Bruce McEwen Career Development Fellowship Award.

“The collaboration represented by the network and the study published in Science helps to integrate the fields researching social determinants and health disparities,” Dr. Bartolomucci said. “This is essential to inform public opinion and policy as well as drive further research.”

Dr. Bartolomucci is also working with social epidemiologists, basic scientists and clinicians at the University of Minnesota to extend this approach to the study of obesity and aging-associated diseases.

In addition to Dr. Bartolomucci, co-authors of the Science review include Jenny TungSusan Alberts, Joseph R. Burger and Angela O’Rand, from Duke University, Noah Snyder-Mackler, Arizona State University, Yang Claire Yang, Grace A. Noppert, Allison E. Aiello and Kathleen M. Harris, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Carol A. Shively, Wake Forest School of Medicine, Lauren Gaydosh, Vanderbilt University, Daniel Belksy, Columbia University, and Fernando A. Campos, the University of Texas, San Antonio.

Science has also featured the review in this video on their YouTube channel.

Snyder-Mackler et al., Social determinants of health and survival in humans and other animals. Science, 2020;368: eaax9553. DOI: 10.1126/science.aax9553