It’s All Connected

From my Healthy Living column in Moncton’s Times & Transcript.

My most missed childhood pastime is reading. As an elementary school and middle school student, I could devote hours each day to reading books and usually, I did. In stark contrast to the good ol’ days where free time was abundant and any book a worthwhile read, I’ve often come to the shocking realization during my ”breaks” over the past few years that I haven’t read a real book since the last break.

My coping strategy involves making a lengthy list of books that I’d like to read and then reading them in order of priority. For this break, there was one book whose name was particularly highlighted on my list: Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Us by Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, and James H. Fowler, PhD. The authors are both social scientists and professors at Harvard University who have worked together on research on social networks.

One of the authors’ recent research projects involved taking information from a long term health study (the Framingham Heart Study) to reconstruct patients’ social networks and studying how individuals were affected by the weight gain of people in their network. They found that obese people were more likely to have friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends who were obese and that non obese people were more likely to have friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends who were non obese.

Connected explores the social network explanation for this phenomenon and for other phenomena, some health-related (STDs, panic epidemics), others not (convincing citizens to vote, happiness). The underlying idea of the book is that social networks are in a way ”living” because of the people that make them up and that they immensely influence the world around us and are therefore worthy of being studied. Social scientists studying social networks can discover the idiosyncrasies of the flow of certain mediums (ideas, germs, weight gain, etc.) and use them to plan intervention strategies.

The book suggests that applications of knowledge about social networks could streamline efforts in public health and other areas related to sociology. For example, it has been found that women’s drinking behaviors are more likely to influence the drinking behavior of people around them than men’s drinking behaviors, suggesting that targeting women’s drinking behaviors would be a particularly important objective of a program promoting healthy drinking behaviors for everyone.

More information about Connected and social networks can be found at www.connectedthebook.com.

Originally published in the Times & Transcript on December 31st, 2010.
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