B4338 - Early life social connections and adiposity Exploring the underlying biosocial mechanisms - 02/06/2023

B number: 
Principal applicant name: 
Yvonne Kelly | UCL (United Kingdom)
Miss Katie Taylor, Dr Eleonora Iob, Dr Daisy Fancourt
Title of project: 
Early life social connections and adiposity: Exploring the underlying biosocial mechanisms.
Proposal summary: 

Obesity is a significant challenge for individuals, societies, and economies. Whilst behaviours involved in energy balance, such as physical activity and diet, have been a primary focus of obesity research, several psychosocial factors have also shown promising associations. Social connections (such as social support and social networks) are known to be linked to disease and mortality in later life. Research has shown associations between social connections and a reduced risk of obesity, yet there is little known about these associations in earlier life stages including childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Taking a lifecourse perspective has the potential to reset health and social trajectories by encouraging a proactive preventative approach, rather than a reactive treatment approach. The specific roles and relative contributions of the different social connection dimensions (structural, functional, and quality) are also unclear, meaning the optimum ways to intervene are unknown.

Understanding the underlying biosocial mechanisms linking social connections to health is important as it can help establish causality and suggest novel interventions. Stress and inflammatory response systems have been individually associated with both social connections and obesity but have not been studied in this relationship. Ultimately, this project aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between early life social connections and obesity across the early lifecourse, including the exploration of the potential underlying biological mechanisms.

Impact of research: 
The findings from this research could help inform interventions for the prevention of obesity. Social connections are amenable to change, meaning they are a promising social exposure to target. Recently, there has been increased interest in non-medical interventions, meaning social connections could provide the basis for another non-medical intervention to develop. The research could also inform how different social connections impact health via different pathways and which dimensions need prioritising in clinical and policy settings. This could improve intervention effectiveness. Focussing on early life stages may encourage a more proactive approach to obesity prevention, rather than a reactive approach such as treatment. This is important as many treatment options for obesity are inadequate and have not been able to reverse the trend of increasing obesity worldwide. Furthermore, the multi-dimensional approach should encourage the development of upstream interventions rather than downstream interventions from policymakers, again improving effectiveness. Finally, elucidating the biosocial mechanisms will help identify specific targets for interventions, perhaps encouraging a combination of medical and social approaches. The UK is currently facing an economic crisis with frequent strike action and energy prices increasing. Considering the vast direct and indirect economic impact of the obesity epidemic, it is crucial to identify ways to prevent obesity to alleviate pressure on the NHS and reduce public spending. Taking a lifecourse approach and exploring predictors of obesity in early life, such as the current project proposes, can aid and encourage the development of preventative strategies. Consequently, as less funds are directed to tackle the obesity epidemic, more can be directed towards other issues. From an academic point of view, this project will provide a comprehensive, multi-dimensional social connections framework that could be used to explore other chronic diseases. This multi-faceted approach will allow us to understand how the dimensions are independently and/or interactively associated with adverse health outcomes via different pathways. Furthermore, seeking to understand the most appropriate lifecourse models for these associations will enable us to identify the most appropriate ways and times to intervene. The findings from this research are timely considering the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has significantly impacted our ability to socially connect with others, meaning there is an increased risk of the adverse health outcomes associated with isolation, loneliness, and poorer quality social connections. The overriding public perception of obesity remains that it is caused by the individual, for example being ‘lazy’. This demonstrates a lack of understanding around the biopsychosocial predictors of obesity. The proposed research could be used to help educate the public to better understand the issue of obesity. Ultimately, this should help reduce the stigma and, in turn, increase support for prevention and treatment efforts. Overall, the potential impact of the project outlined above will have an important effect on reducing the burden on individuals, societies, healthcare, and public health finances.
Date proposal received: 
Friday, 19 May, 2023
Date proposal approved: 
Friday, 2 June, 2023
Epidemiology, Obesity, Statistical methods, BMI