Friendships Are Great for Your Health
by Stephanie Pappas, Live Science Contributor | January 08, 2016 06:04pm ET
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From the day children first step out onto the playground, friendships are a key part of life. According to Gallup polling data from 2004, 98 percent of Americans report having at least one close friend (the average number of friends is nine).
But friendship may be in trouble. Americans reported an average of 10 friends apiece in 1990, according to Gallup data, and a slew of sociology studies find that Americans have become more socially isolated over the decades. For example, a 2006 study on the number of friends people felt they could discuss important matters with found that the number fell from an average of 2.94 in 1985, to 2.08 in 2004.
Any amount of increase in our social isolation would be bad news, because friendship isn’t just about fun, fellowship and emotional health. Having friends can improve physical health, too.
“One’s social life matters above and beyond what we already know about the ‘quick fixes'” of diet and exercise on health, said Yang Claire Yang, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who studies the physiological effects of social ties.
Researchers who study friendship have uncovered many of its health benefits. Here’s how friendship can be good for you.
1. Friends may extend your life
People who have strong social relationships are less likely to die prematurely than people who are isolated. In fact, according to a 2010 review of research, the effect of social ties on life span is twice as strong as that of exercising, and equivalent to that of quitting smoking.
In the review, researchers examined 148 previous studies on social links and mortality, which together included more than 300,000 participants. These studies found that measures of the strength of people’s social relationships, from their number of friends to their integration into the community, were all linked to decreased mortality.
Researchers think that friendships and health are linked through the body’s processing of stress, Yang said. In the short term, stress is a good thing. If you’re being chased by a lion, you want your body to respond with heightened alertness, a pounding heart and a flood of get-up-and-go hormones like norepinephrine. Likewise, if you’ve got a virus, you want your immune system to kick into gear and attack the intruder with specialized cells and inflammation.
But the chronic stress that can come with isolation can switch on these processes for long periods of time, causing physical wear and tear on the body, Yang said.
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