You can get by — and stay healthy — with a little help from your friends.
Whether you have more friends than you can keep track of or a small circle of close pals, it doesn’t change the power that friendships can have on your health.
There are quite a few obvious reasons why friends are good: They can serve as an outlet for venting, act as a sounding board for ideas and give you advice you might not have otherwise considered. And who else would you call to join you for a last-minute lunch or happy hour?
But friends may have benefits that go beyond those that are purely social. For one, research shows that having strong social relationships — meaning friendships — is linked to decreased mortality. (One overarching survey of this research even found that the effect on your lifespan of having friends is twice as powerful as that of exercising, and equal to that of quitting smoking.)
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Additionally, friendships have been linked to better results in common measures of health, such as body mass index, blood pressure and waist circumference. Experts guess that the connection between your relationships and your physical health lies in the body’s stress response. Isolation can lead to chronic stress, and reducing that — by spending quality time with friends — can benefit your health.
Your social circle can even keep your mind sharp. One study found that loneliness can actually increase your risk of dementia — highlighting just how important having friends can be. According to Helena Chang Chui, MD, professor of neurology and chair of the Department of Neurology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, doctors may now rethink their approach to their older dementia patients as a result of the study. Dr. Chui, who also is a neurologist at Keck Medicine of USC, thinks that it’s easier for patients to admit that they’re lonely versus, say, feeling depressed.
Strong friendships can also guide you through tough times. Research has shown that friendships can help you cope with rejection as well as traumatic experiences, such as divorce, a layoff or a serious illness.
Developing and maintaining close friendships can require a lot of time and effort, so if you’re concerned about how you’ll keep up with a huge network of friends — not counting social media — you’re not alone. Don’t worry out about it, though, because when it comes to your friendships, quality is far more important than quality.
Making new friends may become more difficult with age, especially when you’re caring for kids, balancing a job or both. Put yourself in a position where bonding over a shared interest is easy — such as taking a cooking class, volunteering at a local shelter or even introducing yourself to your neighbors.
You might be surprised at how easy it is to make friends — and will be that much healthier for it.
By Deanna Pai
If you’re in Southern California, make an appointment with one of our primary care specialists. To schedule an appointment, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.