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Large collaboration explores social determinants of health in humans and other social mammals

By Alissa Kocer

Social mammals – from primates to yellow-bellied marmots, dolphins and more – can help us better understand the role social interactions play in health and mortality, not just within their own species but in humans as well.

Jenny Tung, Ph.D., associate professor of evolutionary anthropology, was a member of a multi-year interdisciplinary working group on the social determinants of health in humans and other animals. In a review  published in Science on May 22, the group reviewed key themes and emerging insights from studies of social mammals in the context of observations first made in human populations. This large collaboration started as a Triangle/North Carolina effort; almost all of the authors initially connected with the group through research or training experiences at Duke, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill or Wake Forest University.

“We wanted to write about the cross-disciplinary ideas and perspectives on sociality, health, and evolution that came out of this working group, and target it to a broader audience.” Tung said.  

While it’s already possible to draw some parallels between social animals and humans, there is, no doubt, more to discover. And those discoveries could help researchers improve disease prediction, prevention and interventions for humans. Getting there fastest, the review argues, will require the convergence of multidisciplinary teams that include both biological and social scientists.    

“For this review,” Tung said, “we wanted to figure out shared language and points of intersection that future collaborations between life scientists and social scientists could tackle. 

Because of this working group, Tung has begun to think more about how she can do this in her own lab. She is currently involved in a collaboration with researchers from UNC and the University of Chicago to start exploring some possible comparative work in humans. She and two other co-authors, Alessandro Bartolomucci (University of Minnesota) and Kathie Mullan Harris (UNC), also received an NIH High Priority Research Network Grant from the National Institute on Aging, which will allow them to support a research community interested in comparative/animal model work for understanding the social dimensions of aging.

Obviously not all social determinants of health in humans can be effectively modeled in other social mammals, but for those that are shared, the team argues that comparative studies must be expanded to include more species and a wider range of human populations.

Story originally published May 22, 2020

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