Behavioral influences in the progression of atherosclerosis in the Watanabe heritable hyperlipidemic rabbit

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Committee Member

Philip M. McCabe - Committee Chair


Background. Emotionally stressful behaviors are believed to advance the progression of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease. Less abundant is evidence to support the belief that affiliative behaviors can mitigate disease progression. In the present study, the influence of behaviors associated with development and attenuation of disease were investigated, using the Watanabe Heritable Hyperlipidemic (WHHL) rabbit, an animal model that spontaneously develops atherosclerosis due to a genetic defect in low density lipoprotein receptors. Methods and results. WHHL rabbits were assigned to one of three social/behavioral groups: an Unstable group, in which unfamiliar rabbits were paired daily, with the pairing switched each week, a Stable group, in which rabbits were paired with a littermate for the entire study, and an Individually-Caged group. Confirmatory Factor Analysis was used to generate an Agonistic Behavioral model composed of latent factors for Subordination, Sexual Aggression, and Hostile Aggression. The Agonistic Behavioral model, plus the observed variables Groom Mate and Passive Rest, and final body weight significantly predicted Total Lesion Volume, accounting for 48% of the variance in disease. Sexual Aggression was associated with increased levels of disease, while Groom Mate was associated with attenuation of disease. An Insulin Metabolic Syndrome (IMS) model was also generated, combining the variables insulin, heart rate, body weight and passive rest, and was found to predict Lesion Volume in the abdominal aorta. Conclusions . Findings support the belief that behavioral factors are associated with attenuation, as well as acceleration of the progression of atherosclerosis. It also emphasizes the importance of behavioral factors in atherogenesis, even in a model of disease with strong genetic determinants.


Psychology, Behavioral; Psychology, Physiological

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