As any teenager will tell you, being popular is totally awesome. But it has a downside: According to a new study, popular people tend to catch the flu first.
When the flu is going around, people at the center of social networks—those who are named as a friend by others—come down with the virus about two weeks earlier than a randomly selected group of people, the study found.Monitoring the health of these socially connected people could serve as an early warning system for flu epidemics and outbreaks of other infectious diseases, the researchers say.
The study, which appears in the journal PLoS ONE, was based on a concept known as the “friendship paradox”: When people are asked to name their friends, their friends tend to have more social contacts than they do.
“If you take a random group of people and you ask them to nominate their friends, their friends will be more central in the network than they are,” says one of the study’s authors, Nicholas Christakis, MD, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School, in Boston. “That means you can identify central individuals who are more likely to catch contagions earlier.”
In the study, Dr. Christakis and his co-author, James Fowler, PhD, a professor of medical genetics at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, chose 319 Harvard undergraduates at random and asked them to name their friends, which yielded a group of 425 students who were named at least once.