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  • Writer's pictureDr. Winifred Lender

Cultivating Friendships: Good for your Mental Health and Physical Well-being

When we mentally tick off the boxes of things we do that are good for our health and longevity, most of us will have a very similar list. We all agree that visiting the doctor for annual exams, exercising, eating healthfully and keeping mentally engaged are important steps toward the goal of staying healthy. One area many of us fail to appreciate as impacting on our health is the role of friendships.

While friends are considered nice and fun to be around, they are increasingly being seen as a necessary ingredient in the recipe for achieving mental and physical health and successful aging. Taking an inventory of your friendship base and appreciating its importance in your life is the first step you can take toward ensuring you are filling this area necessary for optimal health.

More and more research is supporting the essential role friends play in our lives. Research has found that friends contribute to our longevity. A longitudinal study in Australia found that people age 70 or older with many friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the 10 years of the study than subjects with smaller circles of friends. Researchers have also found that socializing can delay the memory decline that increases with age.

A study conducted at Harvard and utilizing a notional sample of retires who were followed for six years found that those people who had the most social connections showed less than half as much memory decline than people with the fewest social connections. These researchers found that interactions with friends were important in preventing memory decline.

Increasingly, evidence is indicating that friendships convey a special health benefit for individuals with health risks and diagnosed conditions. For example, a study of almost 3,000 nurses diagnosed with breast cancer found that the subjects without close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as subjects that had 10 or more close friends.

Friendships also convey a significant health benefit for men. A six-year Swedish study of men found that risk of heart attack and coronary disease based on the number of friendships a subject had. Of interest is the fact that in the nurses and the Swedish man studies, the presence of a partner (husband, wife or significant other) did not convey a significant benefit to the subjects, whereas the number of friendships did. In fact, in the Swedish study the impact of having no friends was as great as smoking.

Given the importance of friendships on physical and mental health, one might question what kind of friendships afford this benefit. Do the friends need to live close by? Do only friends we see very often afford this protective advantage? In fact, it appears we do not need to live close to the friends nor do we need to have contact with them often. In the nurse’s study, the proximity and type of contact with the friends was not associated with survival. It appears the protective mechanism is having the friends and believing that they are available to be of support, if needed.

The exact mechanism that makes friendships act as a protective factor against disease, memory decline and death is still being evaluated. Clearly, friendship requires us to communicate, show empathy, physically engage with others and use our cognitive skills, all which would benefit us in aging. In addition, friendships can support us, motivate us, help us normalize situations, decrease our stress level, and inspire us to fight and move forward — all things that can support us in a disease situation. It may also be that the presence of a friend makes us feel less alone and helps us to see the world as less threatening.

A University of Virginia study speaks to this point. In this study, students were fitted with weighted backpacks, positioned at the bottom of a hill, either alone or next to a friend, and asked to estimate the steepness of the hill. Students who stood next to friends estimated the hill was less steep than students who did not stand next to friends. Moreover, the longer the friends had known each other, the less steep they reported the hill to be. This is a powerful indicator that with a friend by our side, we feel that tasks are easier to tackle.

The next time you consider your health checklist, don’t forget to include friends on it. Friendships are not only enjoyable, but afford a great health advantage to us all. Even though we need to invest time in developing and nurturing friendships, they can pay dividends now and in the future. Take stock of your friendships using the tips below.

» Start thinking differently about the role of friendships in your life. Remind yourself the important role they play in your health and longevity.

» Take this opportunity to reach out to friends, both near and far, and connect with them. Let them know you are thinking of them and how you appreciate their friendship.

» Remember that if you are struggling with an illness or other issues, friends can be very significant support. Although your first inclination may be not to talk to friends about these issues, push yourself to reach out.

» Keep in mind that friendships have transitional periods. If your friendship is based on work or children, it may ebb and flow as these activities change. Acknowledge this and try to find other areas to relate around with your friends.

» If you find you want to develop more friendships, consider your interests (join a group for beginning photographers, writers or would be artists). Connect around your hobbies, where you live (join a neighborhood association) or volunteer with a group.

» When you feel you have no time for friends, think about ways to carve out contact with friends around the things you have to do daily — exercising with a friend, carpooling with friends, reading the same books as a friend and then talking about it, spending time with friends and children.

» The benefits of friendship come from the support it conveys. If a friendship is bringing you stress, consider why. Evaluate if the friendship you have is really working for you. Open a discussion about it.

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