Posted on Aug 03, 2020, 7 p.m.
According to a recent study published in PLOS ONE from the University of British Columbia women with fewer social ties have been found to be more likely to struggle with obesity; men by contrast have lower risk of obesity if they have smaller social networks and live alone.
The researchers focused on data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging which included information on the social lives of 28,238 adults who were between the ages of 45-85. Data was also analyzed on waist circumference and BMI to examine potential links between social ties and obesity.
Findings revealed that women who were single, widowed, divorced or separated had a greater risk of abdominal and general obesity; women were also found to be more prone to excessive weight if they were not very social active. Single women who lived alone, for example, who had limited social participation such as not having any recurring monthly activities were found to have had the highest average waist sizes.
Men, in contradiction, who had larger social networks were found to have higher average waist sizes compared to men with smaller social networks. Additionally, men who lived with a partner were also found to be more likely to struggle with obesity than those who lived alone.
“There is a lot of literature suggesting that marriage is health-promoting for men and potentially less so for women, so our results about marital status were kind of surprising,” said Professor Annalijn Conklin, who is the principal investigator, an assistant professor in the faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at UBC and is a researcher with the Center for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences.
“The different types of social ties that we looked at had a more consistent relationship with obesity for women. Those patterns in men were less obvious and seemed to sometimes even be reversed to what we saw in women.”
Although this study was not designed to investigate the underlying causes of possible gender differences linked to obesity, Professor Conklin believes it may be partly due to differing gender roles and the social expectations that come along with those roles.
“You would think that having small social networks would be a kind of social stress and that would have consequences for obesity, but we found that it was potentially protective for men,” said Professor Conklin. “It could be that managing very large networks becomes a source of stress for men, as research has shown that men often assign to their wives the emotional labour of keeping track of birthdays, special events and organizing family or social gatherings.”
Lead author Zeinab Hosseini suggests that further research should be conducted to better understand all of the factors that might be at play. But the findings indicate that healthcare providers should also be recommending social activities alongside a health diet and exercise when treating women who are single, according to the researchers.
“Not only did we find that minimal social participation was associated with obesity in older women, but also that social participation altered the levels of obesity in widowed women,” said Hosseini. “These findings call for studies that will follow the participants over time to understand the possible causal links between different social connections and the health of older women and men.”
“Clinicians could be encouraging older women patients who are non-partnered, especially widowed women, to participate in social community interventions as a way to address obesity,” said Hosseini. “This would require clear implementation strategies, and a focus on social connection interventions by health care researchers and decision-makers.”
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