The surest route to decline as we age is isolation. Older people fade away psychologically, physically and socially if they don’t have the emotional or intellectual stimulation we take for granted earlier in our lives. So the after-50 version of “an apple a day” is “nurture your friendships.” During our first adulthood, frantically balancing the multiple demands on our lives was (over) stimulation enough. Many of us downgraded the importance of friendships other than those that developed out of common interests (parents of kids your kids’ ages) or shared space (workplace colleagues). Now that we are starting to think about the rest of our lives, though, the notion of close friends takes on renewed importance. When we ask ourselves what matters most going forward, many of us would agree that a “circle of trust” is a clear priority. You know who your friends are. They are the support group that will see you through the changes that lie ahead; they will accept your eccentricities and show up when you need them. And they will make you laugh. (If this doesn’t sound familiar, you’ve got some serious upgrading to do.) What you may not realize is that they can also contribute to a longer life. Here are some of the ways being among our girlfriends makes us healthier:
- Research shows that when women are sharing an experience with other women, their bodies produce oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone” because it is released in mothers when they're nursing. Unlike husbands or kids (who can also bring about this chemical response but are often the cause of anxiety), our friends consistently elicit that warm glow, which feels good and soothes anxiety.
- Studies of female primates conclude that the company of a small but trusted band of other females reduces damaging spikes in stress hormones. Having a circle of trust to “mop up the cortisol spills that can weaken the immune system” (as New York Times writer Natalie Angier puts it) may contribute to the fact that women live longer than men.
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