With no offense to my husband or the rest of my family, I really don’t think that I could make it through the day — much less have weathered all the ups and downs of the last three decades or so — without my friends.
Whether it’s comparing child-rearing notes with Puffin, gossiping over coffee with Hannah and Maggie, hashing out long-term goals with my power-walk partner Sara, parsing last night’s festivities with Stacie or commiserating with Janet about a major setback, each of these women helps keep me balanced and sane.
(Becky Heavner/BECKY HEAVNER) - AnyBODY illustration for 3/15/11
My inner circle has been there for me in countless ways over the years, and I’ve always tried to reciprocate with as much time, support and love as possible.
Not that I ever need an excuse for a girls’ night out, but research suggests that good friends may actually be great medicine: Strong social ties may help stave off memory loss as you age; reduce stress; boost immunity; help you lose weight and keep it off; and buffer against depression, among other health benefits. There’s also a strong longevity link, says Carl Latkin, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: “If you have supportive relationships, you’re going to live longer.”
In fact, a 2010 review of nearly 150 studies that was published in PLoS Medicine found that people with strong social ties had a 50 percent better chance of survival, regardless of age, sex, health status and cause of death, than those with weaker ties. This conclusion was based on information about more than 300,000 individuals who were followed for an average of 7.5 years. According to the researchers, the health risk of having few connections was akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and more dangerous than being obese or not exercising in terms of shaving years off your life.
And numerous studies have shown that friends may affect your health even more than family members: The 2005 Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging found that close relationships with children and other relatives had little impact on longevity, while people with the most friends tended to outlive those with the fewest by 22 percent.
Close comrades seem to be a valuable advantage when it comes to battling specific medical conditions
such as heart disease and obesity. A study of 2,230 breast cancer patients in China published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology last month found that social quality of life – including the strength of friendships — was the most important predictor of both cancer recurrence and survival. “It’s very exciting, because we believe social quality of life is modifiable — it’s something that we can change,” says the study’s lead author, Meira Epplein, an assistant professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Still, experts stress that it remains unclear exactly why the buddy system seems to convey benefits. “If you have a larger social network, is it material resources like those people taking you to the doctor and making sure you take your medication? Does that make a difference?” asks Latkin. “Or does having a confidant result in some emotional or psychological process that might increase well-being and reduce depression? In other words, are friends protecting you from bad things or promoting good things?”