Do friends, family affect your health?

In low-income, minority communities, tight-knit social connections can lead people to eat right and be physically active — but they can also sometimes be an obstacle to a healthy lifestyle, according to new research by investigators at Dana-Farber and the Harvard School of Public Health.

The findings present a mixed picture of the benefits and potential downsides of social ties as they relate to a healthy lifestyle.

People with many close friends, for example, tended to eat more servings of fruits and vegetables per day than those with fewer friends.

Woman in grocery store
The study found that people with many close friends tended to eat more fruits and vegetables than those with few friends.

On the other hand, people who have strong relationships with many family members tended to consume more sugary drinks and fast food than others.

Researchers theorize that for people made vulnerable by low income and poor access to services, the demands of social responsibilities — being a single parent, or a caregiver to an ill or elderly relative, for example — can deprive them of the time and energy to adopt good health habits.

“It’s well documented that social relationships can have a positive or negative impact on people’s health habits, but little attention has been paid to this issue specifically in low-income groups,” says the study’s lead author, Sara L. Tamers, PhD, MPH, of Dana-Farber’s Center for Community-Based Research.

“Our findings raise the possibility that for this population, some of the constraints on a healthy lifestyle are social ones. If further research bears that out, programs to encourage healthier living will need to take these factors into account.”

Data for the study was culled from the Health in Common Study, conducted between 2005 and 2009 to examine cancer risks for racially and ethnically diverse, low-income people in Greater Boston. As part of the study, participants were asked how many close friends, family members, and neighbors provided them with support, and these data were tracked with their dietary and exercise habits.

“Social relationships are critical for anyone’s well-being,” Tamers says. “But for people in difficult economic circumstances, those same relationships may be a burden that limits their ability to eat right and get enough exercise. More research is needed to determine if this is indeed the case – and, if so, how we can tailor community health programs to these circumstances.”