autoimmune research, digital health

Getting Healthy is a Team Sport

The Power of Social Networks

Do you think your health is determined by the individual alone or are there other important factors as well?

Humans are social animals, and our health – like so much else – is strongly influenced by the people around us.

Relationships are crucial to life itself – so much, in fact, that they can impact an individual’s health:

  • A seminal 1988 review showed that a low quantity and low quality of social connections can contribute to an elevated risk of mortality.
  • A more recent 2012 study confirmed that individuals with a greater number of friends are more likely to experience good health.

That doesn’t mean quantity is more important than quality. Subsequent investigations have shown that health does not simply depend on the number of relationships a person has – the structure and quality of one’s social group are important as well.

A 2006 study found that living in a strong, tight-knit community provides modest but tangible health benefits: the more interconnected a person’s community is, the less likely he or she is to report poor health.

The Pros and Cons

Of course, friendships are not always positive – they can also be negative influences. A book-length review about the power of social networks describes how friends can transmit their unhealthy tendencies, such as obesity, cigarette smoking, and suicide. This can happen through three degrees of social separation: “Your colleague’s husband’s sister can make you fat, even if you don’t know her.” Knowingly or not, one can be affected by another person’s negative health behavior.

Social networks can influence whether one gets sick and the outcome of the illness. A 2014 study found that among those with heart disease and diabetes, a strong support network:

  • improved subjective day-to-day experience of the illness (even if it did not influence physiological health).
  • led patients to rely less on formal health services, such as having family and friends take care of them – a much cheaper option, and one that improved the patient’s mood.

Future Implications

Health professionals are exploring ways to use social networks to actively improve people’s lives.  In a talk at TedMed, Mark Hyman MD described how he worked with top clerics at the Saddleback megachurch to create a small group health initiative. By utilizing positive peer pressure, more than 15,000 participants were able to lose a collective 250,000 lbs of excess body weight. On top of that, those who signed up with a friend lost twice as much weight as those who joined alone.

In a talk at the Health Technology Forum, John Mattison MD explained that health innovation should focus on restoring connections among people. He believes in the power of mobile social technologies to create meaningful communities, promote wellness, and help prevent disease.

Susannah Fox of the Pew Internet Project agrees with this view. In her blog, she names peer-to-peer health as the most important healthcare trends of our time.

Our next two blog posts will take John Mattison and Susannah Fox’s rallying call as a starting point. We will examine what patients actually do in online communities, and whether these communities are serving their intended purpose of improving health.

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