Study: Social networks can have impact on health behavior

Underscoring the results of existing studies, new research has found that social networks can have a much bigger impact on health behaviors than previously suspected. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that an individual's decision to stop smoking is strongly impacted by whether people in their social network quit--even by people they don't know personally. In fact, entire social networks of smokers appear to quit almost simultaneously, according to the researchers, medical sociologist Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School and political scientist James Fowler of the University of California at San Diego.
Their study follows on previous research by the two suggesting that obesity too, can follow a pattern within social groups, appearing in one person and 'spreading' to another almost as though it were a virus.

The researchers used data derived records kept between 1971 and 2003 on about 5,124 people who participated in the landmark Framingham Heart Study. Because the subjects were connected to the suburb of Framingham, MA, many had social connections, allowing the researchers to study a network of about 12,000 people. When they analyzed the patterns of those who managed to quit smoking over the 32-year period, they found that the decision was highly influenced by whether someone close to them stopped; for example, someone was 67 percent more likely to quit if a spouse stopped, and 36 percent more likely if a friend did.

To learn more about the research:
- read this Washington Post article

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