Why relationships matter to your health
It turns out that it is in fact all about who you know. Health education researcher Dr. Meg Patterson said who you are connected with can have huge impacts on your health and health literacy.
“So much of our research on health is about individual risk factors, things like ‘How often do you exercise, what is your race, ethnicity, income etc.’,” Patterson said. “But in reality, if you are not nested in the right network of people, it does not matter if you are perfect individually. On the contrary, you can have everything stacked against you, but if you are in the right network you can overcome anything.”
Patterson, an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Kinesiology, uses Social Network Analysis to learn more about health in populations. SNA is a theory and a method that reveals how things connect and how those connections are meaningful.
She conducted a review of research that used SNA to assess college-aged adults’ health. She found, no matter the health topic, relationships had the power to generate positive or negative health outcomes.
Examples from the review include one surprising study that analyzed international students in the United States and the people they spent their time with while abroad.
“Those that had networks that were more composed of their host country friends versus home country friends were less stressed, acclimated better and had less homesickness,” Patterson said. “Whereas, those that were connected with people from their home country felt more homesick.”
Another study pointed to a less surprising health outcome. Students who are connected to people who drink heavily are more likely to drink heavily themselves.
Centrality & health equity
Patterson said the key takeaway is that there is something protective about being connected to people. She said the more central a person is in their network, or more densely connected, typically the more protected the individual is.
“This research was college student health, but the literature outside of college student health supports that as well. Social belonging is good for us and overall, while there may be some aspects where bad things can diffuse through your networks too, generally speaking, we are happier and healthier people when we are well connected,” Patterson said.
She noted this could explain some health inequities that exist. Individuals that face disparities, like rural populations, can suffer negative health outcomes due to their difficulty to connect to others, such as health care practitioners. However, these individuals are not the only ones who have trouble connecting.
“We are existing in a time where social connection is not as easy as it used to be, especially in-person social connection,” Patterson said. “But being courageous enough and sacrificing your own comfort and energy to connect with people can translate to big, positive health outcomes.”
She said removing one person from a network changes the entire network as a whole. Therefore, making even just one connection with a person can impact you and those around you.
Considering how connecting with people can have such a huge influence, Patterson said that health educators should utilize people as a health literacy asset.
“For health literacy, it is such an important thing to remember as researchers that we cannot expect to make someone more literate by handing them a pamphlet at a clinic, which has been a historical approach, especially for health education,” Patterson said. “But really capitalizing on how people are learning what they learn and how people know what they know, it is really through who they are connected to.”
Patterson plans to continue using Social Network Analysis in her future research as a means to better understand populations and their health.
“Social Network Analysis is one way to tap into relationships and not only use it to learn more about health but also give us key intervention points to make our efforts more successful than they have been in the past, and hopefully make for a more equitable and literate population,” Patterson said.
Patterson garnered attention last spring when a student posted a photo of the ‘heartfelt note’ on her final exam. Patterson reminded her students to practice kindness and offered her support should they ever need it.
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