Friends Help Us Live Longer

Keeping tabs on lifelong pals may extend your lifespan.

May 1, 2009

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—It may be easy to ditch friends from your MySpace page, but do that in real life, and it just may shorten your life span. A 10-year study of older populations in South Australia published recently in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health has found that people who keep up with their BFFs have longer life expectancies.

THE DETAILS: Researchers collected the names of men and women over age 70 from electoral rolls and recruited 1,477 to be in the study. Using surveys and questionnaires, they asked participants to rate the quality of their relationships with their children, other relatives, friends, and confidants and how frequently participants had contact with those individuals. To control for other potential contributors to premature death, researchers also asked about their health problems and other lifestyle factors (smoking, drinking, or depression, for instance). After 10 years, roughly 40 percent of the original participants were still living. The authors found that those who remained were more likely in their survey responses to have reported having friends and confidants than did the individuals who had subsequently died. Perhaps even more interesting was that relationships with children and relatives didn’t seem to produce the same protective effects. “In a lot of cases, friends really do take the place of family,” says Margaret Gibbs, PhD, professor emeritus at Fairleigh Dickinson University and a clinical psychologist. Especially these days, as families move farther apart and frequent contact becomes more difficult.


WHAT IT MEANS: Good friends can keep you from dying earlier, possibly because friends can be good influences for healthy behaviors—helping us to stop smoking and encouraging us to exercise. Friends also can help us counteract depression, cope with the loss of a spouse, and keep us from becoming isolated as we age, write the authors. “There’s lots of research indicating that social support is important to health and happiness at any age,” says Gibbs. But, she adds, you need to focus both on the quantity and on the quality of your friendships (the latter of which her study didn’t address). “Numbers might be especially important when you get to be older, because you start to lose your friends, but friendships serve different functions—help, altruism, empathy. You have to be sure that all those things are being met with your friendships.”

Having good friends requires being a good friend. Here are several ways to develop and maintain long-lasting relationships:

• Make time for them. Like any other relationship, you have to commit time and effort to maintain friendships. After you meet with a friend, follow up a few days later to make your next lunch date.

• Get in touch and keep in touch. Studies have found that friends who touch base at least a few times a month, even for a short phone call, are more likely to maintain contact a year later.

• Remember, Facebook-only friends don’t count. “If you’ve got 150 online friends, you don’t have the time to develop close intimate relationships with them,” says Gibbs.

• Judge not. “It’s important not to be too demanding,” says Gibbs. We all have our failings, she says. If a friend does something to upset you, talk it out rather than let it fester into a friendship breaker.