To Health and Happiness

October 1, 2007
Follow the leader: A healthy spouse is a good role model

Follow the leader: A healthy spouse is a good role model. Jim Naughten

Studies showing that people can effectively "catch" obesity from their close friends—through changing interpretations of appropriate behavior and weight—made headlines a few months ago.

But a Duke study also released recently demonstrates that, at least in the case of spouses, the converse is also true. Being a good role model, researchers say, can truly help a spouse adopt a healthy lifestyle.

When one spouse quits smoking or drinking, gets a cholesterol screening, or rolls up a sleeve for a flu shot, the other spouse is more likely to follow suit, according to the study, published in the journal Health Services Research.

"We consistently find that when one spouse improves his or her behavior, the other spouse is likely to do so as well," says study co-author Tracy Falba, a visiting assistant professor of economics. "It isn't clear which spouse drives the change, but it is clear that these things happen together."

The sway of the positive role model was strongest when it came to smoking and drinking and weaker for things such as getting more vigorous exercise and having a cholesterol test. In the case of flu shots, a spouse's influence can be "quite striking," Falba says. Husbands whose wives start getting the yearly shot have a 60 percent likelihood of getting the shot themselves, compared with a 21 percent likelihood among husbands whose wives do not get the shot.

Falba says the findings of this and similar studies could point toward a new strategy for doctors looking to improve the health of married patients.