7 January 2019

Danish economics behind one of 2018s major research results


Your lifestyle is formed to a great extent by the health and disease among your relatives, and this is important knowledge in the economic research, states the English-speaking business-news media Quartz.

Torben Heien NielsenDanish economist Torben Heien Nielsen and American researcher Itzik Fadlon’s analysis of what happens when a family member is struck by critical illness, is one of the most important economic research results in 2018. This is stated by the quick-growing web media Quartz which asked some of the world’s most acknowledged economists – including two Nobel prizewinners – to suggest the research results with the most impact in 2018.  

American professor of economics Emily Oster pointed to the research project “Family Health Behaviors” which was produced in collaboration between the University of Copenhagen and the University of California, San Diego.

In December 2017, Heien Nielsen and Itzik Fadlon published results showing that when we witness critical illness amongst a close relative or a colleague, we invest to a much greater extent in securing our own health.

This fact influences our effort made to prevent our own illnesses, and our willingness to undergo health-related check-ups and for example take cholesterol reducing medicine (statins) or buy products for smoking cessation.

The two researchers applied register data to search how closely related persons’ critical illness affects our own “health-behavior”. They mapped how both spouses/partners and adult sons and daughters immediately change their lifestyle in more healthy directions when the family faces what the researchers call a “health shock”. However, the research shows that the effect of the shock extends far into our network.

Illness among daughters- and sons-in-law and even among near colleagues also affect us towards healthier lifestyles. And not only do you learn that your family may be predisposed to certain diseases - the health risks suddenly appear very concrete for the individual, thus making it easier to act on, explains assistant professor at Department of Economics Torben Heien Nielsen.

- Peoples’ lifestyle and behavior in relation to their own health is generally difficult to change. However, at the same time we know that to some extent behavior is contagious. In families for example, we eat the same food and often share the same exercise habits. In this study, we show that in difficult times when a family member is struck by serious illness, it actually causes the relatives to take better care of themselves. It seems as if “health shock” in the family has a ripple effect as regards to behavior, and the closer you are to the sick person, the more you react, he says.

In other words, the researchers’ results show that health behavior can change and that incidents where a family member falls ill can be utilized to motivate other family members to make persistent behavioral changes resulting in better health.

However, family members tend to focus on the exact disease that their relative is struck by, although this particular disease may not necessarily constitute the main risk for the other family members. So, we can, accidentally be influenced in the wrong direction, too.

Read the article in Quartz