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Disease: Does collective behaviour influence obesity prevalence?

Scientific Reports

June 15, 2012

The physical mechanisms that underlie the spread of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as obesity and some cancers, are analyzed in a study published in Scientific Reports. The research could prove important for the design of health policies.

Obesity prevalence is increasing in many countries but it can be hard to identify the underlying drivers. As the gain of excessive body weight is related to increased calorie intake and inactivity, a key aspect of prevention efforts has been devoted to individuals’ habits, but the prevalence of obesity and other NCDs shows strong spatial clustering, suggesting that the processes governing collective behaviour may also be involved.

Hernan Makse and colleagues use statistical physics to quantitatively study the spatial spreading of disease. Using data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they examine the correlations and clusters of fluctuations in obesity prevalence and cancer mortality rates across the United States. The spread of these NCDs is reminiscent of a physical system at a critical point of second-order phase transition, the authors find.

Additionally, the observed fluctuations of obesity and diabetes are very similar to the activity seen in industries associated with food consumption, such as supermarkets and restaurants, although the authors caution that they cannot establish a causal relationship between obesity prevalence and economic indicators. Further research is needed to determine whether fluctuations in the food economy can impact obesity or whether the food industry reacts to obesity demands.

doi: 10.1038/srep00454

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