What are friends for?

Extending your life, research shows, and your family is simply not as good at it

July 08, 2005|By David Kohn | David Kohn,Sun Staff

Blanche Cardarelli is a very friendly person. Almost every day, she spends at least a few hours hanging out with one group of people or another. She belongs to seven social clubs and, by her count, has dozens of friends.

"I like people. I like being around people," says Cardarelli, a former homemaker who lives in the Middleborough section of Essex. "You can either sit home and watch TV, or you can go out."

Cardarelli, a widow who is in her early 70s ("I don't give my age away because that keeps my boyfriends around," she jokes), has a good chance of living for many more years, at least according to a study of almost 1,500 people age 70 and older.

The research, which appears in the July issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, found that people who had more friends and who spent more time with them tended to live longer.

Intriguingly, the researchers found that spending time with family did not seem to lengthen life.

The study followed subjects for 10 years. The most interactive group, people who had five or more close friends and talked with them regularly, were 22 percent less likely to die than those who were least connected -- no close friends and few social contacts of any kind.

"For older people, having more friendships seems to have a positive impact," says Carlos Mendes de Leon, an epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "It makes a significant difference." Mendes de Leon, who wrote a commentary accompanying the study, is an expert on the connection between elderly health and social connection.

The findings make sense to 80-year-old Karel Cohen and her friend, 85-year-old Frances Hyatt, who eat lunch regularly at the Myerberg Senior Center in northwest Baltimore. "It's very important to have relationships with other human beings," says Cohen, a vivacious retired secretary who belongs to four clubs and takes classes at the Myerberg. "People need people. It keeps you going."

It's not clear how friendship improves well- being. Some scientists suspect that interacting with others keeps people mentally and physically sharp. "Friendship is a mechanism that makes us active," says Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist Thomas Glass, who studies how social patterns influence health.

Friends may also serve as a support system, helping people stay on top of physical and emotional problems. "They may motivate you to take better care of your health: 'You should go to the doctor -- that cough is bad,' " says Mendes de Leon.

Lennie Sherman, 73, a retired designer from Reisterstown, agrees with this theory. For the past decade, he and a dozen friends have met three times a week to work out at the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center. He says that without his friends, he'd have stopped exercising long ago: "Chances are, my interest would have waned."

Hanging out with people also seems to trigger beneficial physiological changes. Several studies have shown that positive social interactions can lower blood pressure, as well as reduce cholesterol and stress hormones. "There's growing evidence to show that social experience can affect your biology," says Teresa Seeman, a social scientist at UCLA.

In a study of rats, for instance, scientists induced strokes and then gave the animals exercise to spur recovery. But half the animals rehabbed alone, while the other half did so in groups. After several weeks, the animals that spent time together had made much more progress than the loners. "Their brains were actually healing faster and better," says Glass.

Social beings

He suspects that humans are similarly hard-wired to respond well to hanging out. "We have a 180,000-year history as a species where we have relied on friendship for our very survival," he says. "We were hairless, weak animals. The only way we succeeded is we worked together. We are social animals, and we are probably biologically programmed to respond to each other's company."

Some scientists suspect that social connection may trigger release of the neuro-hormone oxytocin, which can reduce blood pressure and anxiety. The chemical is best known for its role in helping bond mothers and newborns; women who are breast-feeding experience a massive increase in oxytocin levels, imparting a feeling of intense love for their newborns.

As for family, epidemiologist Lynne Giles, the study's lead author, suspects that for at least some older people, spouses, children and other relations offer less pleasure and relaxation than do friends. "We're not saying, 'Children are bad, friends are good,' " says Giles, a professor at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. "But for some people, family is a source of stress."

Eddie Schlesser is more blunt. A 79-year-old retired cabdriver who lives in Pikesville, he sees a key difference between friends and relations: When the former become more trouble than they're worth, you can opt out.

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