Want to live longer? Keep exercising and eating your vegetables, but make lunch plans with an old friend, too.
Want to live longer? Keep exercising and eating your vegetables, but make lunch plans with an old friend, too. Numerous studies have shown that people with strong social networks live longer and recover more quickly from illness than those without these ties.
Men – who tend to have fewer close friends than women – stand the most to gain from developing relationships. Some researchers suggest that loneliness is a risk factor for heart disease – just like high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol. People without many friends are also more prone to depression.
Social isolation – a risk factor for men. Researchers at Harvard School of Public Health studied more than 28,000 men to see if social ties had an impact on their health. Half enjoyed a large social network of family, friends and community connections; the other half did not. After 10 years:
- Deaths in the group with few social ties were 20 percent higher than in the highly social group.
- The more-isolated men were 53 percent more likely to die from a heart-related disease than the others.
- Of those who developed heart disease, the less social men had an 82 percent higher risk of death than the other group.
- Men with the fewest social contacts had more than double the risk of dying from accidents and suicides than men in the other group.
- Married men had a lower risk of death from any cause and half the risk of death from accidents and suicides than the unmarried men.
In addition, an American Heart Association study looked at 3,267 men (average age 62). The study reported that those with few social ties had much higher levels of a blood marker for inflammation – known to be associated with heart disease – than men with bigger social circles. Known risk factors for heart disease were taken into account.
All the same, choose your friends wisely. Other studies show your risk of heart disease can go up if your relationships are stressful.
People who need people. As many as one in four Americans say they have no one to confide in about personal problems. For them, making more friends could have clinical benefits similar to making lifestyle changes.
How do friends help us stay healthy? No one can say for sure, but theories include:
- Close friends and relatives encourage you to take care of yourself. They may get you to give up smoking, heavy drinking or a poor diet.
- Having friends may boost self-esteem and ward off depression.
- Having social support may reduce stress and hormone levels tied to high blood pressure.
- You’re more likely to be physically active if you have people to do things with.
- Some men see doctors only because a wife, partner or friend convinces them to.
- A social circle is a valuable resource when you are sick. Friends can take you to the doctor or help out while you recover.
Generally, women are better at sharing their feelings and maintaining friendships than men. But anyone can increase their social network with a little effort. Joining a book club, bowling league or poker group can widen your contacts. So can taking a class or doing volunteer work. Building good relationships could make you healthier in much the same way as a daily walk or a low-fat diet.