We all know that we should exercise regularly and eat less junk to get and stay healthy. But new research suggests there may be a health factor that’s just as important as hitting the gym and loading up on fruits and veggies—your friends.
Published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, research found that a person’s social network is an important health factor, from adolescence to late adulthood. During adolescence and old age, it’s the size of the social network that matters most. Social isolation increased risk of inflammation, while social integration was found to protect against abdominal obesity. Among older adults, social isolation was found to be more harmful to health than diabetes when it came to developing and controlling hypertension. Meanwhile, for those in middle adulthood, researchers found that it was quality, not quantity, that mattered most. Adults with social connections that provided social support rather than strain were found to be physically healthier.
The study, which pulled together data over 20 years of research on the association between social relationships and mortality, supports previous findings about the importance of friendship on physical health. People with strong friendships are less likely to get colds, and even recovery from major health setbacks like a heart attack is better when the patient has strong social connections. Even brain function benefits from friendship, with Harvard researchers reporting that strong social ties could promote brain health as we age.
That’s all good news—except, as many of us know, it can be really hard to make and nurture friendships the older you get. Conditions important to making close friends—proximity, repeated unplanned interactions, and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, tells the New York Times—get tougher to meet once you’re out of college.
So what can we do to make new friends and strengthen the relationships with the ones we already have once we’re no longer sleeping two feet away from them in our college dorms? Plenty, actually:
Make the time.
Sounds obvious, but how often do you end up canceling plans with friends because a family commitment comes up, you have to work late, or you’re just too burnt out? And we’ve probably all been guilty of meaning to call a long-distance friend to catch up…and just not getting around to it. Spending time with your friends shows you value them, and according to researcher Daniel Hruschka, the most common friendship fight is over time commitments.
Adapt to your friends’ lives.
Sure, it’s a bummer that your girlfriend can’t stay out all night at your favorite bar because she has a baby now. But that doesn’t mean you should put your friendship on hold until her kid graduates and moves out. Instead of getting upset that your friend can’t make your standing happy hour date as often, adapt. Bring over dinner takeout if your friend is on bedtime duty. Nice day out? Plan a family-friendly day at the park.
Looking to make new friends? Try volunteering—it’s been shown to make people feel more socially connected, warding off loneliness. It’s also a great way to meet people with similar values and interests.
Show up for the big moments.
It’s hard enough to see the friends who live in your city, let alone the ones who’ve moved to another state or country. But when it comes to being a good friend, it helps to be there physically, not just emotionally, for stressful life events whenever possible, research shows. In a study at Concordia University, psychologists found that when kids had a close friend with them during a negative event, their levels of the stress hormone cortisol were lower and their feelings of self-worth were higher. Got a friend in need and a few extra vacation days? Consider booking a flight.
Confide in an acquaintance.
Want to take a casual friendship to the next level? Share something personal to form a closer bond. Peter DeScioli, who has done research on the “alliance” theory of friendship, says telling a friend something sensitive makes them feel like you value them more than someone else.