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Obesity more common among women with fewer social ties

Women with fewer social ties are more likely to struggle with obesity, according to a new study from the University of British Columbia (UBC). By contrast, men have a lower risk of obesity if they have a smaller social network and live alone.

The investigation was focused on data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, including information on the social lives of 28,238 adults between the ages of 45 and 85. The researchers also analyzed data on waist circumference and body mass index to examine the potential link between social ties and obesity.

The study revealed that women who were single, widowed, divorced, or separated had a greater risk of both abdominal and general obesity. Women were also more prone to excessive weight if they were not very socially active. For example, females who lived alone and had limited social participation, such as no recurring monthly activities, were found to have the highest average waist size.

On the other hand, men with a larger social network had a higher average waist size compared to men with a smaller social network. Men who lived with a partner were also found to be more likely to struggle with obesity compared to those who lived alone.

Principal investigator Annalijn Conklin is an assistant professor in the faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at UBC and is a researcher with the Center for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences.

“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 Conklin. 

“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.”

The study was not designed to investigate the underlying cause of the gender differences linked to obesity. However, Professor Conklin believes the findings 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.” 

Study lead author Zeinab Hosseini said that further research is needed to understand the factors at play.

“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.”

The findings indicate that health care providers should recommend social activities alongside healthy diet and exercise when treating older women who are single, noted the researchers.

“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.”

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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