Is Kevin Bacon Controlling Your Health?

Copyright (c) 2008 BrainFit For Life

You probably played the Kevin Bacon game at some point in your life. Someone names an actor and you have to connect that actor back to Kevin Bacon through other actors who have worked together. The theory goes that we are all connected by six degrees of separation or less. I know someone who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows you.

Scientists are now looking at social networks in the world of health behavior. An old Russian proverb says “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are”. Also, personal development gurus claim that we are they average of the five people we hang out with the most. Now, reports in the Journal of the American Medical Association, JAMA, suggest this may be true. Two new studies show social networks have have significant influences on your risk of smoking and becoming obese.

Both studies followed a cohort of 12,067 people for 32 years as part of a huge effort called the Framingham Heart Study. In the obesity report, researchers found that a person has a 57% increased chance of becoming obese if one of their friends plumped up, a 40% chance if a sibling became obese, and a 37% increased chance if their spouse packed on the pounds.

In the smoking report, researchers found similar things. If your spouse kicked the habit, your odds of also kicking it increase to 67%. If your brother or sister quit, your odds of quitting rise to 45% and if a friend or co-worker quit you increase your chances to about 35%. Both of these studies controlled for factors like genetics and geographical area and found that the social networks still had a big effect.

As and aside, it’s interesting that your spouse has the biggest effect on your smoking behavior but the smallest influence on your waistline. Maybe it’s easier to sneak Ho-Ho’s from the snack drawer than to slip outside for coffin nail.

These associations may not be too surprising. The people we hang out with influence us all. But maybe you should take this a little more seriously if you are really wanting to change your health. If you really need to lose weight, quit smoking, increase your level of physical activity, or just spend less time watching Days of Our Lives, maybe you should find some people to hang with that have already had success in that area. Your chances of success are significantly restricted or improved by the folks you choose to spend the most time with. It may be difficult to distance yourself from some people. But then again, for others it may be just the excuse you’re looking for. As Jim Rohn says, “Some people, you can spend an hour with, but not a day. Some, you can spend a day with, but not a week. Some, you can spend a week with, but not a year.”

Take stock of your associations. Who is holding you back or propelling you forward?


N Engl J Med (2008) 358:2249-58 N Engl J Med (2007) 357:370-9