To Increase Longevity, Friends May Be More Important Than Family

Most of us know from experience that having good friends can make our lives richer, but research now shows that our friends may also increase our longevity.  An interesting added conclusion is that the same isn’t true for our relatives.  

A study reported in the British Medical Journal suggests that friends not family may be a more important factor in helping those age 55+ to live longer. Study participants were asked in the beginning of the study about how much personal and phone contact they had with their various social networks, including children, relatives, friends, and confidants. In all about 1500 people participated in the study. Their survival rates were monitored over a 10 year period.  

Close ties with children and other family members appeared to have no impact on longer survival rates. But, for those participants with a very strong personal network of close friends and confidents, survival rates were much higher than those with weaker ties to friends. While factors such as socioeconomic status, health, and lifestyle were figured into the results, the outstanding factor appeared to be the network of friends. The positive effects of friendships on longevity continued throughout the decade, regardless of other profound life changes such as the death of a spouse or other close family members.

Why would a strong network of friends make such a difference?

  • Friends operate on a different level than family. The authors of the report speculated that friends may encourage friends to take better care of themselves-by excercising for example, or seeking medical treatment earlier for symptoms that may indicate serious problems.
  •  Friends of the same age may understand your point of view or where you are in your life vs. a family member who might be younger.  Friends may also help friends get through difficult times in their lives, if they have been in a similar situation by offering coping mechanisms and having a positive effect on mood and self-esteem.
  • Friends also can make friends laugh, provide company and help fight isolation where children or other younger family members may be busy with work, marriage and/or children. The older adult may feel like a burden.  This feeling is not as common with a friend.
  • Family ties are often maintained out of a sense of obligation, while friendships are a matter of choice. 

People with extensive networks of good friends and confidantes outlived those with the fewest friends.  The positive effects of friendships on longevity continued throughout the decade, regardless of other profound life changes such as the death of a spouse or other close family members.  Close relationships with children and relatives had little effect on longevity rates for mature adults during the 10-year study.  Neither the study nor the report suggests that family ties are unimportant to older adults, only that they seem to have little effect on survival and longevity.

“You get by with a little help from your friends” as the Beatles song goes, seems to prove true. Socializing, friendships and connecting with others is vital to health and longevity.  So, take up a new activity, join a group, get out there and get involved. These types of activities will bring you into contact with many people who share the same interests and could become friends for an even longer life. 

Contribution by S. O’Brien

Laura Kay House, MA, is the founder and owner of Silver Connections, located in the Triangle area of North Carolina. Silver Connections provides numerous socializing opportunities through events and travel, quality members and connections for age 55+, active and single adults.