By On December 16th, 2010

Another Understanding of Drinking Buddies

If you spend time with heavy drinkers you are more likely to become one. Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, of Harvard University has studied the importance of social connections in regard to alcohol consumption. Dr. Christakis used the Framingham Heart study involving over 12,000 participants who were followed for 32 years in the study, between 1971 and 2003 to assess whether alcohol consumption spreads from person to person in a large social network. The research found that people were 50% more likely to drink heavily if a person they were directly connected to drank heavily. As separation from the heavy drinker increased, such as the friend of a friend who was a heavy drinker (known as two degrees of separation), the size of effect was 36%  and 15% at three degrees of separation.

Dr. Christakis’ study revealed that social network influence can affect health as much as family history or genetic background. Over the course of the study it was discovered that those who were surrounded by heavy drinkers increased their alcohol consumption by 70% compared to individuals who were not connected to any heavy drinkers. Every connection to a heavy drinker increased the risk of drinking heavily for the person by 18% and decreased the likelihood of abstaining from alcohol use by 7%.

Relationships also effected drinking. For example, if a wife drank heavily her husband’s likelihood of drinking heavily increased by 196%. If the husband drank heavily the wife’s likelihood of heavy drinking was 126%. The study found that female contacts are more likely to influence the spread or “contagion” within the social network. It is possible that since women are perceived as sharing a norm for lower alcohol consumption, the emergence of a woman who is a heavy drinker serves to provide a “stronger stimulus” within the social relationships. Some relationships, such as immediate neighbors, had no effect on alcohol consumption. Christakis suggested that social networks could be exploited for positive results, such as using the social network relationships to transmit positive messages about controlling use and eliminating the obstacles to abstaining. That is certainly the positive social influence that we see from groups like AA, NA and Celebrate Recovery.

Within the context of Brookhaven’s Substance Abuse Program we know that relapse has a social component. We recommend that people who are working their post-discharge program stay away from friends who are likely to influence their return to substance use. The Recidivism component in our Outcome Validation Study identifies that one aspect of ¬†relapse relates to social network stress issues. In general, the recovery communities talk about changing one’s immediate surroundings and relationships to maintain sobriety. Dr. Christakis’ study underscores this powerful dynamic in the treatment of substance abuse; that being the power of social influence. His study does highlight the immediacy of the relationships in enhancing the likelihood for heavy drinking and provides insight into the power of relationships to influence and change behavior.

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