Friends: best medicine for a long life

March 11, 2013
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Friends or family? It’s not usually a choice people have to make. But after my father died, that was the choice my mother faced. None of her three children lived in Perth; two of us lived on the other side of the country, one on the other side of the world. But Perth is where my outgoing mother had spent her then-68 years, and all her friends lived there. She decided to stay put.

My mother, now 84, was right to stay with her friends rather than move to Sydney to be near us. Research is mounting to show that if you had to make the Sophie’s choice between friends and family, friends are probably better for you. Having a diverse group of friends is good for your health, your longevity, your morale, and your memory. Adult children and relatives as your main source of social contact don’t confer the same benefits.

The fascinating research led by Professor Mary Luszcz, of Flinders University, first showed the literally life-giving effects of friendship a few years ago. Following almost 1500 older Australians over 10 years, she found those with big friendship networks lived eight years longer than those with the fewest friends. Those who relied on adult children, spouse or relatives for friendship didn’t do as well. Her most recent study on memory, published late last year in the Journal of Aging Research, tells a similar story. Beginning with people of average age 78 and with normal memory, she tracked them over 15 years and found those with lots of friends who kept in regular contact were more likely to preserve their memory and slow the rate of its decline. But having adult children, a spouse, or relatives as the main social contact conferred no similar benefit.

There’s further evidence in a study of nearly 3000 nurses with breast cancer. Having a spouse didn’t help survival but having a friendship network did. Given most of us intuitively know how precious our friends are, it’s odd so much fuss is made in public life about the importance of marriage, family and children and so little about the crucial role of friendship. Apart from the Men’s Shed initiative, it’s hard to think of policies that promote friendship in older adults.

Yet loneliness is a serious health problem. It can be as detrimental as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic, according to Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad, of Brigham Young University in Utah, who reviewed 148 studies on social networks and health. Loneliness is twice as bad for our health as being obese. Letting friendships slide or failing to nurture them can be dangerous to our health, the research is telling us. It’s another reason why workplace reform is so important – to give us time for friends as well as family.

But why should it be that friends are more likely than family to improve our lot? For a start, we choose our friends, and the friends we keep into our older years are likely to be tried and true. On the other hand, we’re stuck with our adult children and relatives. As much as we may love them, they can bring us grief, worry or aggravation. “You have to put more energy into friendship and that gives people a sense of autonomy, control and independence that seems to be good for them,” Professor Luszcz told me. “With family it happens as a matter of course.”

Adult children also play a different role from friends. They provide practical help, mow the lawn, fix things, and ferry parents to doctors’ appointments. Most provide important emotional support, too. In the best of all worlds, older people have friends and family. My mother is in quite good health, independent in her home, still going out with those friends who aren’t too disabled or sick. But as she heads towards her 85th birthday, I wonder what the future holds. I suspect ultimately it’s family that will be crucial.

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Coming of Age is updated every Monday.