Healthy habits found in pairs

For anyone having a hard time kicking a smoking addiction, Yale researchers have some advice — get a loved one to do it first.

A new study by researchers at Yale and Duke University reveals that people are up to five times more likely to adopt healthy behaviors — such as giving up drinking or smoking, exercising, obtaining a flu shot or getting a cholesterol screening — if their spouses also adopt the healthy behavior.

The results of the study — which looked at both men and women and controlled for factors such as race and education — relied on data gathered over a four-year period from 6,072 married people about 55 years old. While some students said they found the results intuitive, others questioned their practical application.

“[The results were] similar for men and women,” co-author Jody Sindelar, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, said. “When one person takes on a good behavior, the other spouse is more likely [to take on the same behavior] as well.”

The results suggested spouses are more likely to adopt behaviors that can be triggered by visible cues or initiated by a patient than other types of behavior, said Tracy Falba, a visiting associate professor at Duke University’s Center for Health Policy, Law and Management and a co-author of the study. For example, spouses were more likely to quit smoking, which can be cued by the removal of ashtrays, or to get a flu shot, which is initiated by the patient, than to get a cholesterol screening, which is often initiated by a doctor, she said.

The implications of the study’s results could bear on future health research, Falba said. Care providers should consider incorporating spouses in health intervention, she said. Alternatively, when people undergo health treatment or intervention, she said, physicians should keep in mind that a patient’s lifestyle changes may cause changes in his or her spouse or family as well.

The authors said they were taken aback by the degree of correlation between personal behavior and a spouse’s habits.

“I think that what surprised me the most was just the magnitude of the results,” Falba said. “This wasn’t just a slight increase in the likelihood.”

Sindelar said she was also surprised that the study’s results were equally applicable to men and women.

The findings resonated with English professor Traugott Lawler, who said he and his wife of nearly 50 years have experienced a transfer of behavior like that described in the study, although it has not held true in all cases.

“A couple of years ago my wife had a health problem that required her to stop drinking alcohol, and I decided to stop drinking, too,” he said. “But she still doesn’t get up as early in the morning as I do.”

Some Yalies said they think the results of the study make intuitive sense.

“I find it perfectly believable,” Andrew Gu ’11 said. “Having someone else there that’s stopping the habit has a reinforcing effect.”

But some students questioned whether the study will have any concrete impact on health practices.

Evan Orenstein ’08 said he is unsure whether the results will be useful in practical situations.

“I sort of wonder what that practically means,” he said. “Is that practically going to change interventions?”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Institute on Aging funded the study, which was published in Health Services Research.

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