This week’s Sunday New York Times ran an article on the new thinking around social networks and health. As the article notes, last month, the New England Journal of Medicine ran an article on the ways that not just germs–but behavior–tends to spread among networks of people who know each other. The study, which focused on patterns of weight gain among subjects of the Framingham Heart Study found that if one person became obese, his or friends also tended to become obese. And that’s led the researchers to wonder about other health behaviors, too–including feeling depressed and getting a child diagnosed as autistic.
It’s tempting to see the news as only bad news, especially given the epidemic of obesity now sweeping across the country. But the researchers have also found that healthy behaviors can spread like viruses. Eschewing smoking, for instance, traveled from person to person during the 1970s, until smokers were finally kicked off social networks in which most people had quit.
That underlines the importance of continuing patient education even when it seems no one gets your message. If you can get one young mother to quit smoking and lose weight, for instance, you may be setting a whole chain reaction in effect.