The power of social networks to improve health

Quitting smoking and losing weight (if you are overweight) are perhaps the two most important behavior changes you can make to improve your health. A new article in today’s New England Journal of Medicine confirms what a previous article has shown: people we interact with in our social network (friends, spouse, co-workers, etc.) strongly affect our behavior when it comes to smoking and weight gain or loss. We also affect the other people in our network. Today’s article is titled “The Collective Dynamics of Smoking in a Large Social Network” by Christakis NA, Fowler JH (NEJM, Volume 358:2249-2258). The earlier article, and similar research, is described in Weight Management for Your Life (p. 79):

In 2007, an article appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine with the title “The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years” [N Engl J Med. 2007 Jul 26;357(4):370-9] The same day the article was published it made front page news. No previous research had focused so intensively on “the obesity epidemic” as a social network phenomenon. The main finding of this elaborate study was that friends have a highly significant influence on our weight, specifically whether we become obese. The effect of friendship was surprisingly large and exceeded the influence of siblings and spouse (whose influence was also significant). … The editorial in the NEJM accompanying the article put it this way: “As the article by Christakis and Fowler [the researchers] shows, … networks, in this case those that pertain to social influence, may have just as strong an impact on the development of obesity as the otherwise strong genetic effects.”

These studies provide exciting and compelling evidence in favor of the bio-psycho-social model for disease and wellness, meaning that biological (e.g., genetic), psychological (e.g., coping) and social (e.g., interpersonal and cultural) factors interact to produce health problems and all must be addressed in reversing or treating these problems.

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