When you spend time with friends, you’re not just getting updated on the television shows you’ve missed or enjoying the chance to brag about your grandchildren. Sharing your life with companions could very well be saving your life.
Many of us know intuitively that having friends keeps us healthy. You might not realise, however, that researchers have been exploring the connection for decades.
People who frequently interact with others, whether face-to-face, or by phone, mail or e-mail, live longer and healthier lives than those who live in isolation. Sociable people get sick less often and recover faster when they do.
Why is friendship (or, as researchers call it, social support) such a positive and healing force? To start with, a friend can influence your perceptions and your behaviour. A good friend might even point out health problems that you haven’t noticed. Friends can persuade you that symptoms, such as fatigue, weight loss, or less accurate hearing or sight, warrant a checkup. They might even encourage you to go to the doctor when you keep putting it off.
Benefits you can measure
A central factor, though, is that simply staying connected to others makes people healthier, particularly the elderly. How does social support provide protection against disease? It’s an antidote to the poisonous effects of loneliness and isolation. Lonely people feel alienated even in the midst of congenial groups. Their sense of isolation may come in part from misperceiving what other people say and do. Loneliness feeds on itself because the less relaxed contact you have with others, the more likely you are to feel out of place when you try to mingle. In time, you may feel so anxious that you avoid most socialising.
Elderly people, many of whom have outlived spouses and/or friends or have seen their loved ones become disabled, are especially vulnerable to loneliness. Relocation, which is more and more common after retirement, also leaves a substantial proportion of older people lonely, out of touch with old friends and unable to replace them with new ones in their new environment. Loneliness is a fairly substantial medical risk factor. It elevates the chance of premature death about as much as high blood pressure, lack of exercise and obesity do. Researchers estimate that, within a given time period, individuals who lack social networks are two to three times more likely to die from any cause than people who have lots of relatives and friends.