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Is Obesity Contagious?

Friday, November 14, 2008 Posted by Travis Saunders
I am in the process of completing my Master's Thesis on regional body fat distribution and metabolic disease risk in elderly men and women. In doing so, I have spent hour upon hour thinking about the relationship between obesity and cardiometabolic risk, as well as their impact on Canadian society as a whole. While writing up my general discussion last night, I came across two very interesting article by Christakis and Fowler, both published in the New England Journal of Medicine. I am willing to bet that many if not most academics are fairly logical, rational people. As such, we tend to spend a lot of time worrying about "translating" our information for the public so that they can become more informed about obesity, physical inactivity and related health risk, and use that knowledge to make rational decisions about their health. However, the work of Christakos and Fowler suggests that health behaviors may not result just from our rational decision making processes. Instead, their work suggests that positive and negative health behaviors flow from one person to another like social contagions, eventually "infecting" entire social networks.

In their first article from 2007, Christakis and Fowler reported that our social networks have a dramatic influence on our risk of developing obesity. For example, they report that if an individual has a friend who develops obesity in a given period of time, their own risk of developing obesity increases by 57%. Similarly, their risk of developing obesity increases 40% if a sibling develops obesity. These findings suggest that we could see an exponential increase in obesity as more and more members of each social network become obese, increasing the risk of obesity in those around them. Perhaps we have already reached this obesity tipping point, setting off a chain reaction that will not end until the vast majority of Canadians are obese.

Although these social networks could be our collective undoing, they may also be our salvation. A subsequent study by Christakis and Fowler suggests that while obesity may be “contagious” among our social networks, so too are positive health choices. For example, they report that if an individuals’ spouse quits smoking in a given period of time, that individual becomes 67% more likely to quit smoking themselves. Further, they report that entire groups of interconnected people stopped smoking simultaneously, and that those who continued to smoke became increasingly marginalized within their social networks.

I am not by any means suggested that we should socially marginalize individuals with obesity or increased cardiometabolic risk – far from it! What I do believe, however, is that positive lifestyle choices may be “contagious” within a social network, leaving those with predominantly unhealthy behaviors increasingly marginalized within their social network. Eventually these healthy behaviors could become social and cultural norms, just as unhealthy behaviors like smoking were in the past. This may not "cure" obesity, but it would certainly lead to longer, healthier lives for people of all shapes and sizes.

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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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