How the friends you keep affects your longevity
Every one of us wants to live a healthy, long life.
Most people assume that genetics have an overwhelming say in our longevity. Sure—lifestyle choices like diet and exercise have their place, but behavioral changes can only move you up or down from your genetic baseline.
However, that view is changing.
It turns out that genetics is only responsible for 20% to 30% of longevity. The rest is dependent on how we spend our time.
And I’m not just referring to eating right and staying active.
It turns out that your relationships—especially friendships—are a very strong predictor of longevity.
In fact, having a healthy social system is about as important as having a healthy diet, skipping cigarettes, keeping your blood pressure under control, or avoiding obesity.
In other words, friends are one of the most important components of a long, healthy life.
Yet we almost never think of them that way.
That changes today. Below, I’m going to talk about why friends are so important as you age. And give you four ways to increase your circle of friends, no matter how old you are.
A Unique Support System
At this point, numerous studies have shown how essential friends and social networks are to health and longevity.
Indeed, one study in Australia found that those with the most active social networks outlived lonely folk by about 22%.
What’s more, having a strong social network helps us work through otherwise-devastating life changes, like the death of a spouse or other close relative.
Somewhat mysteriously, the same can’t be said of family. Only non-blood relationships have a positive correlation to longevity. Relations with siblings, children, or other close relatives have no effect.
This has led some researchers to hypothesize what’s causing these effects.
It could be that friends exert a positive peer pressure. They’ll express disapproval if you smoke or drink excessively, for example—making it less likely you’ll do so.
Seeing them requires event planning and more movement—keeping you more active and healthy.
And, perhaps most importantly, friends provide a support network during bad times. Relatives often can’t serve the same function, as they are likely going through the trauma right beside you.
These are all theories, but frankly, I’m not particularly concerned with why it works.
I care that friendship has been proven to increase both health and life.
Yet, today, friendship is actually declining in America. As many as 25% of Americans don’t have a close confidant outside of family. And the average number of close friends has dropped from four in 1985, to only two today.
As you age and friends themselves face mortality, that’s a very thin social network.
That’s why it’s important to stay active, and continue to meet new people and make new friends throughout your entire life. Not only will your time be richer—it will be longer as well.
Like Attracts Like
Here are four great ways to meet people that are likely to make good peers and, hopefully, good friends. Thanks to technology, most of these can even be done from the comfort (and safety) of your living room.
- Get active in your religious group. If you aren’t religious, you may find a humanist group can meet some of the same needs. You’ll feel better being involved in a larger community. And you’ll meet many people who share important worldviews.
- Take up a social hobby. This could be anything from online dance clubs to bridge. Book clubs to virtual wine tastings. Anything that excites your imagination, go ahead and try it. You’ll find plenty of other folks with brains that light up the same way yours does.
- Take online classes from a local community college or other school. Keeping your mind active is important all by itself. Doing so while also finding friends of a similar persuasion is even better. Whatever you find interesting—from art history to astrophysics—explore it, and enjoy the company of others who share your passion.
- Find ways to serve others. I’ve never met someone who said they regret volunteering for a cause they believe in. But I’ve met plenty of people who say that it changed their lives. And, if it helps you meet other kind souls you get along with, volunteering won’t just change your life. It will also prolong it.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to meet new friends and get involved in new communities—even in a time of social distancing. This is just a smattering of ideas to get you started.
How you go about making new friends isn’t important. What matters is that you do. You want to have as many social contacts as you’re comfortable with.
There’s no need to lose touch with old friends. In fact, old friendships are usually the deepest and most meaningful.
But having a deep bench isn’t a bad idea as well. Especially when you enter your retirement years.
They are already supposed to be the golden. Might as well make them as enjoyable as possible. With the added bonus of added life and added health.
Last Updated: May 5, 2020
Originally Published: September 11, 2015