The Framingham Heart Study

I was reminded today of the Framingham Heart Study, which was commissioned to identify the common contributing factors associated with cardiovascular disease. So-named because the study closely followed the health of 5200 people from the town of Framingham, Massachusetts, the study uncovered many of the risk factors (in fact, it coined the term “risk factor”) about which we now slap our heads and say “well, duh!” For instance, some major findings:

  • Smoking increases the risk of heart disease
  • High cholesterol (LDL), high blood pressure, and obesity all increase the risk
  • HCL cholesterol and exercise reduce the risk

I found all that information on http://www.framinghamheartstudy.org–I admit some research was needed before writing today. But what’s semi-buried in the long list of discoveries is the following:

Based on evaluation of a densely interconnected social network of 12,067 people assessed as part of the Framingham Heart Study, network phenomena appear to be relevant to the biologic and behavioral trait of obesity, and obesity appears to spread through social ties.

Basically, social powers are strong enough to dramatically impact our health. Nicholas Christakis, MD,PhD,MPH has added even more to this research and is considered the first and last word on the social factors that impact health, health care, and longevity. Using data from the Framingham study, he and his partner James Fowler noticed how groups of friends tended to stay thin together or gain weight together. By charting weight gain and relationships among the Framingham residents, they proved that obesity happened in clusters. When a resident became obese, his friends’ likelihood of obesity rose by 57 percent. In fact, a person’s likelihood for obesity went up by 10 percent even if a friend of a friend of a friend became obese. That’s three friends removed, and the weight gain still made an impact.

Christakis and Fowler found other impacts, like coworkers transmit smoking habits, and friends transmit happiness. I’m sure there are many more. Obesity isn’t the only thing that happens in clusters.

It’s increasingly popular to consider the impact of our social network and the cues they give us on behaviors and practices. After all, the commonalities are readily apparent. As I analyze the groups I know, I can see many immediately. Athletic people cluster together, and they keep each other active and adventurous. Funny people help make each other funnier through encouragement and reinforcement. Calming people stay together. Frantic people are all over the place, but they do it with other frantic people. My musical friends always ask me how my guitar playing is going and, when I see them more than usual, I typically practice more on my own.

I think successful people help breed successful friends and family. I have a few friends with whom I’m always throwing around new business ideas. We shot them all down (so far), but the discussion is a brain-bending learning experience. And we’re getting closer to a viable idea, which means we’re improving. I know that I’ve incorporated some of our discussions into my career, and this is all from having beers with my college mates–one of my favorite things to do. I believe that by surrounding myself with naturally curious, innovative people who like to talk about it, I’ll become more successful myself.

For more information, check out this great NY Times article.

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