Social Connectivity and Health

According to a 2007 report in the New England Journal of Medicine, social behavior is a significant factor contributing to the obesity epidemic.  The study monitored 12,067 participants over the span of 32 years, between 1971 and 2003 in the city of Framingham, Massachusetts (population in 2009: 65,598).

What the study found was that geographical distance had less of an effect on the spread of obesity than social distance did.

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Furthermore, an adult’s chance of becoming obese increased by :

  • 57% if they had a mutual friend who was obese.
  • 40% if they had a sibling who was obese.
  • 37% if their spouse was obese.

Mutual friends and siblings were of the same gender had a greater influence than friends of opposite sex.

The study did not go on to identify why certain social relationship had a higher increase over others or what social mechanisms contributed to obesity.

However, research done in the book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks & How They Shape Our Lives by one of the same writers of the Framingham study suggests a complex mixture of peer pressure and a social acceptance of behaviors that contribute to obesity.  Our behaviors and our perception of the behaviors of others are interconnected in subtle, yet profound ways that affect our emotional states and personal belief systems.

For instance, if we see people enjoying healthy activities we are more easily inspired to do so.  The same is true for creating a ‘culture’ of enjoying unhealthy activities and behaviors.  This is especially true for the people who are significant to us; people we know and trust versus people in a commercial.

The New York Times put it best in their review of Connected:

Mathematical models of flocks of birds, or colonies of ants, or schools of fish reveal that while there is no central controlling director telling the birds to fly one direction or another, a collective intelligence somehow emerges, so that all the birds fly in the same direction at the same time. Christakis and Fowler argue (in Connected) that through network science we are discovering the same principle at work in humans — as individuals, we are part of a superorganism, a hive-like network that shapes our decisions. “A smoker may have as much control over quitting as a bird has to stop a flock from flying in a particular direction,” they write. The authors take a benign view of this and argue that as we become aware of the networks in which we’re enmeshed, we’ll all be better off.

As described by the authors, network science has potential to be used for good. But then again, if all the strutting and fretting that we believe to be the product of our individual free will is really only the antlike scurrying of a collection of nodes, can anyone really be said to “use” the network? Or is the network always using us?’

With this in mind, we can see how important it is for us to share our positive experiences in healthy activities with those around us, while being mindful of the negative behaviors we participate in with those in our social circles.

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