Self Improvement — 30 September 2012
Cultivate friendships for your health

Current recommendations for better health implore us to: “Eat right, exercise, maintain normal weight, avoid smoking, drink in moderation, challenge your mind and keep an active social life.” The latter is often mentioned last – but is not the least important element in healthy living. Staying focused on maintaining friendships throughout life is not only wise but also essential for health and wellbeing.

Social connection is a primary human need. From earliest times, belonging to a group has always ensured our safety, security and chances for survival. The family structure provides children with the physical and emotional guidance needed to mature and thrive. Mentors and peers serve as our consultants and offer guidance and psychological advice. Communities expand our protection, shield us from harm and provide care during stressful times.

Health benefits of caring friends and family during times of illness have been well documented.   Candyce  Kroenke and colleagues reported that among 2,835 women diagnosed with breast cancer, “Women who were socially isolated before diagnosis had a subsequent 66% increased risk of all-cause mortality.”

Louise Hawkley of the University of Chicago found that “loneliness was associated with elevated blood pressure.” Dara Sorkin of UC Irvine reports, “Social isolation has been linked to a variety of adverse health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease.”

Recent research findings highlight that friends offer not only social and medical support but actually help our minds stay alert and functional. Lisa Berkman of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies discovered, “Individuals, who in their 50’s and 60’s engaged in a lot of social activity had the lowest rate of memory decline.” Oscar Ybarra of Michigan University also found “a positive relationship between social engagement and cognitive performance.”

Some people cease to cultivate new or existing social connections as they age.  They may rely on their association with their families or find comfort in their solitude. The latter is unhealthy and cognitively compromises one’s intellectual acuity.

Professor Rebecca Adams, of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro states, “There is just scads of stuff on families and marriage, but very little on friendship. It baffles me. Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.”

Dr. Cousino Klein who studies the nature of friendships among women explains that when women are stressed they release Oxytocin, the hormone that buffers the fight/flight response and directs them to tending and caring actions. These behaviors further increase Oxytocin release and produce a calming effect.

All the medical and emotional benefits of friendships strongly support staying socially active throughout life for health and wellbeing.

Cultivate relationships for your health:

  • Accept that friendships are necessary for your physical and emotional health.
  • Resist the inclination to isolate under the guise of self-sufficiency or to avoid hassles.
  • Be a supportive friend. It enriches you as you improve other’s lives and happiness.
  • Be proactive in creating and maintaining friendships as part of your plan for a healthy and active life.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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