Health Habits Are Contagious

Health Habits Are Contagious

We all know that laughter is contagious. But what about healthy lifestyle habits? They’re infectious too. Read on to learn how people’s social networks can have a tremendous effect on well-being.

More and more, scientists and scholars are looking at the health benefits of social circles.

Smoking

According to QuitNow, an online resource for British Columbians wanting to stop smoking, chances of success are far greater when smokers connect with others who’ve already kicked the habit or are in the process of doing so.

A 2008 study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that stop-smoking efforts do indeed spread via social connections. Based on the more than 12,000 people who were part of the groundbreaking Framingham Heart Study and assessed between 1971 and 2003, the study found that smoking cessation by a spouse decreased a person’s chances of smoking by 67 percent. Meanwhile, cessation by a friend or co-worker lowered the chances by about 35 percent, and cessation by a sibling reduced the chances by 25 percent.

Physical health

Social connections seem to affect physical fitness as well. A 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57 percent if he had a friend who became obese. Among adult siblings, if one became obese, the chance that another would too increased by 40 percent. And if a spouse became obese, the likelihood that the other partner would also gain excess weight increased by 37 percent.

Mental well-being

Depression appears to be contagious too. A 2010 study in the journal Molecular Psychiatry examined whether depressive symptoms in one person were associated with similar signs in friends, co-workers, siblings, spouses, and neighbours.

It found that people were 93 percent more likely to be depressed if a person they were directly connected to (at one degree of separation) was depressed. People at two degrees of separation (the friend of a friend) were 43 percent more likely to be depressed, while people at three degrees of separation (the friend of a friend of a friend) were 37 percent more likely.

“At four degrees of separation the effect disappears,” the authors noted, “a result that is in line with other results that have shown similar drop-offs after three degrees of separation, including obesity, smoking, happiness, and loneliness.”

Being surrounded by peers who can relate to specific mental-health conditions is proving to be an effective component of treatment.

The Journal of Psychiatric Services in 2008 found that support from trained peers helped people with mental illnesses address certain attitudes, values, and behaviours more effectively in some cases than advice from health professionals.

Choose your friends wisely

By identifying how certain conditions and behaviours can spread via social networks, the potential exists to develop health policies and preventive measures that reach far and wide.

In the meantime, it’s worth considering the impact of your friends on your health—and your impact on theirs.

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