Infectious disease researchers often want to know more about what makes people, especially children, likely to become ill. While it’s known that social stress and health are strongly correlated, the precise nature of that relationship is still largely unknown. To help tackle this question, a group of Norwegian scientists set out to test the connection between popularity and rate of infection. Their results may help parents and doctors better guard against disease.
In the study, 579 preschoolers, split roughly down the middle in terms of gender, were followed for a period of three years. The authors used Social Network Analysis to group the children according to popularity as perceived by their peers, and parental questionnaire responses to determine how often a child became ill.
The results of the study demonstrate a very real connection between popularity and susceptibility to infection. In fact, despite the fact that more popular children probably had more contact with a greater number of peers, lower popularity scores correlated with a greater risk of infection. Not only this, but the link between popularity and infection was time-delayed: the average child’s rate of infection was linked to his or her popularity in the previous year, while no link was found between illness and popularity during the same year.
The results confirm that the relationship between social status and illness is highly complex, and bears closer examination. For example, it may be that increased social stress sets off a chain reaction that takes several months to work its way down to the immune system, or it may imply that the relationship between popularity and infection varies with age. Understanding this relationship may eventually help parents and doctors to better care for children who experience isolation.
Future variations of the study could be improved by measuring the duration, severity, and type of infection, both through parental reporting or with biological markers like those for inflammation. As with all studies of infectious disease, genetic information would undoubtedly help clarify the nature of the relationship, and is a worthwhile avenue for future research.
Understanding the relationship between social interactions and rates of infection is one of the ways by which we can better protect ourselves and our children. In this regard, the study in question and its findings are an encouraging step in the right direction.
The study, “Are unpopular children more likely to get sick? Longitudinal links between popularity and infectious diseases in early childhood“, was authored by Vidar Sandsaunet Ulset, Nikolai Olavi Czajkowski, Brage Kraft, Pål Kraft, Ellen Wikenius, Thomas Haarklau Kleppestø, and Mona Bekkhus.