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Family and Friends Prolong Life

January 20, 2017 (Updated: February 11, 2019)
Lily Moran

If you have a strong support system—like close friends and family—then you probably assume it’s impossible to calculate how much they mean to you. But recent research actually put a tangible value on them. Having a network of family and friends prolongs your life because it counters destructive forces such as stress and because it gives your body a rush of life-giving hormones.

This presents a great opportunity for those who feel lonely or to those who want to help people who are lonely. Please read on to learn how the companionship of friends and family helps make you a happier and healthier person.

A New Health Epidemic: Loneliness

A quiet epidemic has slowly spread over the United States in the past 30 years. Since the 1980s, the number of people who describe themselves as lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent.

According to the AARP, over 42.6 million people over the age of 45 suffer from chronic loneliness. About one in three people over the age of 65 live alone. And half of those over 85 live alone.

When you look at U.S. Census data, it makes sense. More than half of Americans are unmarried, and the number of children per household is declining. We’re living longer than we ever have, our population is growing, yet somehow there are fewer people to spend time with!

It’s gotten so bad that loneliness was named a public health threat in 2017. Studies have linked chronic loneliness with:

  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Altered immune systems
  • Increased inflammation
  • Higher levels of stress hormones
  • 29 percent higher risk of heart disease
  • 32 percent higher risk of stroke

Other studies have found that socially isolated people have a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years—with the effect most pronounced among middle age adults. Additionally, loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults.

All totaled, loneliness is nearly as unhealthy as smoking and obesity. The obvious way to stop the damages of loneliness is companionship and friendship. Not just anecdotally, but clinically. Here’s the proof…

Ties that Bind and Heal

Research shows that social ties positively influence many interrelated health outcomes, including healthy behaviors, mental health, physical health, and mortality risk. For example, stronger ties to friends and family improve your mental health. Better mental health improves your physical health (and vice versa). And better overall health will lower your mortality risk.

Just think about that wonderful feeling you get the second that you answer a phone call from a close friend. Or that feeling when you embrace a loved one for the first time in years. A few studies underscore this.

In a recent Swedish study, satisfaction with sibling contact was closely correlated with better health and a positive mood. That was the case for all age groups in the study, but results were stronger for participants in their 80s.

Another study took a long view on friendship and lifespan. It began in 1965 with 7,000 men and women. Over time, research tried to connect the dots between their mortality rates and the number and strength of their social connections. Because of the vast number of people in the study, there were a lot of other things to account for like diet, exercise levels, smoking, etc.

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Remarkably, the biggest factor in longevity—regardless of people’s age, gender, health practices or physical health status—was having close social ties. And this held true even for participants that practiced unhealthy habits.

In fact, researchers found that “those with close social ties and unhealthful lifestyles (such as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise) actually lived longer than those with poor social ties but more healthful living habits.” Of course, participants that practiced healthy lifestyles habits and had close social ties lived the longest.

There are many similar studies like these but I’d like to shift gears and shine a light on how you can make more friends and strengthen your bonds with friends and family.

How to Create New Social Ties

Unlike other healthy habits, few can seem as awkward or daunting as trying to make new friends, especially for older adults. This goes beyond simply meeting new people; the goal is making meaningful connections. And to do so, the first step is really easy—ask yourself what’s important to you.

What do I enjoy? What do I believe in? What am I passionate about?

Your answers will lead you to like-minded people with whom a connection is more likely to be a friendship. I want to highlight four specific ways.

  • Get active in a religious group, or find a group engaged in an activity or hobby you think you’d enjoy. Not sure where to start? Use your zip code and do a search online for groups and activities that pique your interest. You’ll feel better being involved in a larger community. And you’ll meet many people who share the same worldview.
  • Take up a hobby (whether old or new) that gets you out of the house and into a group of people who enjoy it. Line dancing, bridge, book clubs, karate, wine tastings, mall walking. Anything that excites your imagination, go out and try it. Even if you don’t meet a lot of people initially, you’ll at least be doing something you enjoy.
  • Take classes at a local community college or other school. Keeping your mind active is important all by itself. Doing so while also meeting new people is even better. Whatever you find interesting—from art history to zoology—explore it and enjoy the company of others who share your passion.
  • Volunteer for a cause you believe in. People who volunteer their time to a cause that’s close to their heart say that it changes their lives. And if it helps you meet other kindred spirits that you get along with, volunteering won’t just change your life. It may also prolong it.

Keep a positive attitude while you reach out and possibly step out of your comfort zone. Like most new habits and positive health changes, it takes time for new friendships to form. Not only that, but people are more drawn to others who have a happy disposition. Your positive attitude can be a sunbeam bursting through the clouds to somebody else who is also looking for a new friend.

Cultivating Old Friendships

As you age, your relationships with friends and siblings can change. As you move through your 20s–40s, it’s common to grow apart as you focus on the needs of your family and career. People move, and that physical distance changes the nature of your relationships with them. And sadly, sibling relationships can sour over time for any number of reasons.

If time, distance, or conflict has put a wedge between you and someone you were once close with, I suggest that you remember what initially brought you together—experiences, beliefs, hobbies, inside jokes, and whatever else comes to mind—and reach out to rekindle that connection. If you can’t rebuild that bridge, remember that you didn’t lose anything by trying.

Imagine the feeling of being on the receiving end of a phone call, email, or text from an old friend. But instead of waiting for the feeling, give it to somebody else and you’ll share that happiness with them. If it’s practical, perhaps you can arrange a coffee or dinner date—real life interaction goes a long way to creating (or rekindling) connection. If there is a lot of catching up to do, it’s important that you let them know you are paying attention with your eye contact and body language.

Friendship—the Real Fountain of Youth

Being lonely is not just sad and challenging; it’s also unhealthy. Strong connections to family and friends are proven to reduce stress, improve immunity, and increase your lifespan. There’s no such thing as too many friends, especially you as age. Stay connected to your siblings and close friends, reach out to those who you were close with, and always be open to the idea of inviting new people into your inner circle—even if that means going out to find them.

References

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