Friday, January 01, 2010

Vitamin F: Friends are Good for your Health

I always get a boost from spending time with my friends. We enjoy high and low brow chick flickery, theater and wine bar trolling. We laugh, cry, sometimes yell (OK, mostly I do that) and have gone through triumphs, such as the publication of a new novel and the heartbreak of a parent's death. We are our own support group for the grief and joy of the empty nest. I usually leave feeling upbeat and ready to conquer the next challenge. Apparently, I am not alone in this experience because numerous studies report a health boon from spending time with friends. The term “friends with benefits” has new meaning here, benefits like a longer life, a snappier brain, quicker healing from disease and a sense of well-being.

In a study of older individuals published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, researchers found that time with friends significantly delays mortality. The conclusion, “survival time is enhanced by strong social networks,” is enough to make anyone pick up the phone for a impromptu health boosting get together. We need only look at what happened after Katrina to know how important deeply embedded social ties are in creating viable communities. Yet, time with family members, including spouses and children, does not have the same effect; sorry sis! I suspect that's because our friends actually choose to hang around us, where our siblings and family are basically stuck.

Friends not only help us live longer, but keep the old gray matter in top shape too, says a study conducted by Harvard School of Public Health. I can relate. It seems I am attracted to people who are always trying new things; I learn and expand by association. The conclusion, that social integration protects against memory loss and other cognitive disorders later in life, is just one more reason to get more friend friendly.

Before we get carried away; another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine says you have a 60% chance of becoming obese if your friends are overweight. Does that mean, if I gain weight, I am obliged to tell my friends that I have out on a few before our next coffee date?

Rita Justice, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in the mind body problem, finds nothing surprising about these studies' findings. “People are wired to form connections with other people, we actually feel pain when we are lonely,” says Justice. “Social connectivity played an evolutionary role, we would not have survived without people around us.” However Justice believes that there's more to it than just having a gaggle of friends around us. “Some of us get our battery charged from people, while others are depleted,” she says. “We have level of vulnerability on just how much closeness we need. It depends on our genes and our family history.” Since I grew up in a big Italian family, it's no wonder I prefer a good size crowd while my Swedish Lutheran husband is happy enjoying the company of one or two not-so-noisy people. Never-the-less, both groups have some need for social connection. “Loneliness is bad for your health,” Justice insists. “Studies show elevated stress hormones from spending too much time alone.”

Justice has some concerns about the erosion of true friendship. “A lot of people have superficial connections, and fewer real friends,” she says. “In our parent's generation, true friends were more the norm. Today, people have a harder time being real.”

So what about our virtual friends on Facebook? Do they fall into the category of superficial friends? According to Wendy Parslow-Helton, Professor of Psychology at Lone Star College System, social networking resources make it incredibly easy and convenient to stay connected to friends we've made in the real world. “The resources of the past—long distance calling and letters—were not conducive to frequent contact with close friends who live far away,” says Parslow-Helton. “With Facebook, I can stay connected to people I no longer work with or live near whose friendship I value.” Is it possible that I gain health benefits from knowing that Sandy is baking a pomegranate tart, Troy is cruising through Istanbul and Mandy woke up angry at the world? “The format of FB makes it easy to talk about everyday minutiae, almost as if I still worked with or lived near these friends,” says Parslow-Helton. “It's as if we are still talking around the watercooler or on the front porch like we used to. It would not surprise me if people who regularly have contact on FB with their close friends might get even more of a health benefit, both mentally and physically.”

As the original model for chatty Cathy, I enjoy knowing what a cross section of my friends are up to every single moment. If I happen to run into Sandy later that week, I just might ask her for that tart recipe. And maybe it's just full of antioxidants. So there you have it, we actually do get by with a little help from our friends. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go cook dinner for my 1,123 FB friends.

Good Friends ...

Return phone calls

or emails, text messages and smoke signals; we tend to actually hear from tried and true friends.

Listen more than broadcast.

Yes, I do want to know that you got a grant, an award or whatever other achievement is on the tip of your tongue, but maybe after some real conversation.

Up the fun

Sharing a movie, a new wine or a book is often more fun with your best buds.

Show up

Weddings, funerals, poetry readings and award ceremonies, you gotta be there! Garage sales, you can miss.

Reel you in

Spinning out of control? You should be able to rely on your buds to bring you back to the matter at hand.

Keep opening your mind to new ideas

So your best bud is raising chickens, there is a great learning opportunity here.

Share values

You may not agree on everything, but you often share core beliefs.

Let you vent when you need to

We all need to rant, kvetch, whine and complain, it’s better to do with friends than strangers.

Give you a break when you get a flake attack

We all get Cs in budship at times; bute everyone deserves the occasional get out of jail free pass.

Real friends don't just hang around with you because it's good for their health!

Suggested reading:

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by Dr. John T. Cacioppo

Visit to read more on Rita and Blair Justice’s work

Reprinted from Absolutely in the Loop.