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5 Ways Strong Friendships Can Benefit Your Health as You Get Older




By Lauren Mazzo  Medically reviewed by Jessica Stern, PhD – self.com


What are the ingredients for a long, healthy life? Most experts will point to things like exercise, a nutritious diet, less stress, good health care, and—believe it or not—a social life.1–5


1. Longer life

Strong friendships are a golden ticket for longevity. A comprehensive 2010 meta-analysis of 148 different studies found that strong social connections boost “chances of survival” by 50%, meaning that they help you live longer.7 A lack thereof, on the other hand, has the opposite effect: Research shows that loneliness and social isolation increase the risk for premature death by 26% and 29%, respectively.8 In the US surgeon general’s report, the health impact of loneliness is even compared to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.


2. Stronger immune system and physical health

“Friendships and social connection aren’t just good for the soul—they’re literally good for your health,” Neha Chaudhary, MD, psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and chief medical officer at Modern Health, tells SELF.

Lack of social connection is associated with a higher risk of disease, for example—including a 29% higher chance of heart disease and a 32% higher chance of stroke, according to research.8 Loneliness can even mean you pick up the common cold more often; research shows lack of social connection may increase susceptibility to viruses and respiratory illness, including COVID-19.10


3. Better cognitive health and memory

“Regular interaction with friends keeps us socially engaged, which is important for our cognitive health,” Niloufar Esmaeilpour, MSc, RCC, registered clinical counselor at Lotus Therapy & Counselling Centre in Vancouver, tells SELF. “Engaging in social activities can help keep the mind active and reduce the risk of cognitive decline.”

Evidence backs up a relationship between social activity and cognitive health markers like working memory, visual and spatial abilities, processing speed, and overall executive functioning (a set of skills that includes things like planning, self-control, and following directions).11 Loneliness has such a strong influence on brain function that one 12-year study following older adults found that cognitive abilities declined 20% faster in people who reported being lonely.12 Others found that social isolation and chronic loneliness increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia—the latter by as much as 50%.13

 

4. Reduced stress, anxiety, and depression risk

Friendship benefits your emotional health in a number of ways, including being a great stress reliever, Esmaeilpour says. “Laughter and enjoyment with friends can reduce stress, which in turn has positive effects on physical health, like lowering blood pressure,” she says. “Friends also provide emotional support, which is vital for mental well-being. As we age, we may face various challenges, and having friends to share our worries and joys can be a source of comfort and strength.”

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Moreover, loneliness is associated with increased risk for anxiety and depression, according to the surgeon general.14 A systematic review of multiple long-term studies found that people who report feeling lonely often had double the risk of developing depression compared to those who report rarely or never feeling lonely.15 (And FWIW, this is true for all age groups.)


5. Increased sense of belonging

“Having friends gives a sense of belonging and purpose, which is particularly important in older age when people might retire from work and have more free time,” Esmaeilpour says. Having plans, a reason to get up and leave the house and to turn off your screens, can go a long way in adding life and color to your days—especially when you’re no longer actively working.


“Your social connections are often a collective representation of you and your values,” Dr. Pratt says. “Sometimes our connections can be a sounding board for us, and sometimes they can serve to confirm our viewpoints.” Even better? Having friends that are honest enough to disagree with you, he says. “The reason that that is so important is that it comes with having an understanding that while I may not agree with you, I’m still standing by you.”

 

 

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