If you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning, you might be under the impression that I’m on the search for a new BFF solely because I need someone to join me for a manicure, or because I want a Grey’s Anatomy-watching buddy (yes, I know I’m the only person still tuning in), or because I’m just generally fascinated by friendship and all aspects of social interaction. All of that is true, but there’s more to it. There are some pretty amazing health benefits to surrounding yourself with friends. I’d like to live, relatively healthfully, for a long time. If the research out there is accurate, having lots of friends will add years to my life, increase my chances of surviving breast cancer, delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, stave off colds, help me sleep and lower my blood pressure. Amazingly, in many of these cases, having a spouse or close family doesn’t have a comparable (or any) effect. Friends, as it turns out, are the miracle drug.
• A recent study of Australians aged 70 or older found that participants with extensive networks of good friends were 22% more likely to survive the next 10 years than were those with fewer friends. Having close relatives had no impact on survival, and the effect remained steady even if the participant lost a spouse during the decade.
• A 2006 study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that those who had 10 or more close friends pre-diagnosis were four times as likely to survive than women with “low levels of social integration.” Having a spouse had no impact.
• Harvard researchers studied the effect of large social networks on brain health as we age, and found that—surprise!—“social integration delays memory loss in elderly Americans.”
Both breast cancer and Alzheimer’s run in my family, so you can see why this quest is an important one. It’s not just about the short-term satisfaction of having someone to invite to girl’s night. If I succeed, it could have lifelong effects for me, my husband, and my family. There’s no definitive answers (yet) as to why friendships have such a strong influence on health, but here’s a guess: More friends means more people to convince you to quit smoking, get that weird mole checked out, put down the ice cream, and get back out there before the bummer of a break-up turns into full-fledged depression. And while “did you apply enough sunscreen?” sounds like nagging when it comes from the mom or the husband, it becomes thoughtful concern when uttered by a friend. But that’s just a peon’s hypothesis.
Have you ever seen the effects of friendship on your physical health? Do you trust the research? Does it seem odd to you that friendship is so much more important to health than family is?