There’s no arguing that eating right, getting exercise and enough sleep each night can increase the chances of living a longer, happier life. However, proper nourishment and a healthy lifestyle aren’t the only predictors of being more satisfied during your lifetime.
Over the years, researchers have studied the correlation between friendship and longevity. An Australian longitudinal study on aging found that close relationships with children and other relatives do not have much of an impact on how long you’ll live. On the other hand, the study revealed that people with the most friends outlived those with the fewest by a whopping 22 percent. A clinical review of nearly 150 studies showed that people with strong social ties have a 50 percent better chance of survival than those with weaker ties, regardless of age, gender, health status and cause of death. So, according to researchers, social isolation is more dangerous than obesity and inactivity.
The studies looked at genuine friendships, and not casual acquaintances with whom you may chat with online or see at the grocery store several times a year. But The Journals of Gerontology reported that older people who regularly interact with other people outside their social circle of family and friends were likely to be more active, have better moods and experience reduced negative feelings than those who keep more to themselves.
The bottom line: Staying social and maintaining friendships is good for your health. Here are the direct benefits:
Friendships can stave off loneliness – and prevent depression. When seniors are isolated from family and friends, they may begin to lose their sense of purpose and their mental and emotional health may suffer. Those who continue to develop friendships and maintain a busy social life are typically happier than those who are cut off from others. Opportunities for social contact abound. Even if an individual shares a meal a few times a week with a neighbor, plays cards with friends or volunteers at a school, the rewards will far outweigh the effort.
Social engagement encourages cognitive health and mental sharpness. Interacting with friends can help the brain continue to develop new pathways, helping seniors to stay sharp. It’s important to both create new friendships and maintain old relationships at the same time.
Friendships help foster a healthy lifestyle. Good friends look out for one another. They want what’s best for each other and typically will encourage the other to eat right, see doctors when appropriate and point out issues even before they’re apparent, like hearing loss. A close, healthy friend can help provide very basic care for his or her ailing friend as well, such as driving them to doctor’s appointments or doing the grocery shopping. Friends can also share inside tips on making life easier or fuller. For instance, a good friend might be able to invite his or her counterpart to a senior center group, or recommend a pharmacy service like PersonalRX that custom-packages prescription medications and delivers them to your door, eliminating trips to the pharmacy and ensuring proper dosing.
Connecting with others is linked to physical health and a stronger immune system. In many studies of seniors who described themselves as lonely and their more social counterparts, the solitary seniors tended to suffer from a host of medical conditions such as hypertension and diabetes. A University of Chicago study found that loneliness triggers cellular changes that can cause illness, and perceived social isolation is a factor leading to premature death. Staying socially active can add years to your life – and keep you healthier as you age.
Friendships can boost life expectancy. There’s an important link between personal, face-to-face contact and the ability to learn, stay happy and live a long life. In studies of women with breast cancer, the greatest predictor of survival over a 10-year period was the size of their social circle. Healthy, aging individuals with an active social life can live up to 15 years longer than their less-social counterparts.
As we age, it can be an uphill struggle to maintain existing friendships and develop new ones. Multiple studies show the benefits of being social far outweigh the effort. If you are 55 or older and beginning to feel isolated, talk with your family about ways to stay connected and active so that the road ahead continues to be filled with meaningful friendships and fulfilling moments.