Friendship and Aging
Whenever I think about the kind of person I’d like to become, I think of Maya. She lived on a ranch in Nevada with a wide view of the plains and plenty of room for guests. People were always passing through, bearing wine and ingredients for dishes they’d cook and eat together. When her daughter invited me to stay on the ranch to write a novel, I became part of Maya’s vibrant social circle. She was 90 then, and the fact that she was keen to get to know a woman half her age was testimony to her gift for friendship.
When she died, I told her daughter that no one had had such a good old age as Maya. Though she’d been divorced for years and had lost her son, she was rarely lonely. Her friends helped her keep an amused sparkle in her eyes and vigor in her step.
Maya made me realize that the secret of successful aging lies in our friendships — so I’ve been reassessing and reconnecting with people I consider friends. Who are the perennial flowers in my life, those who bring color and delight every year? And who are the weeds, who leave me feeling depleted? At midlife, there’s plenty of time to sow new seeds of friendships that will bring us joy and — as it turns out — good health.
There’s solid scientific research showing that friends actually change the biochemistry of our brains and the functioning of our immune systems. "Good friendships put our brains and bodies in an optimal state of function," says psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Social Intelligence. "That state is associated with positive emotions, like joy, which help strengthen the immune system and the cardiovascular system."
Scientists have long observed that people with rich social relationships live longer than those who are lonely. The more close friends we have, the more likely we are to be healthy — suffering lower rates of chronic diseases, accidents, and psychological impairments.
Friendlessness, by contrast, is a major risk factor for disease and early death, comparable to high blood pressure, obesity, and other serious health risks. "Being socially isolated is comparable to the negative effects of cigarette smoking for your health," says James Coan, PhD, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Virginia.
What causes this strong correlation between friendship and health? One theory is that friends provide stress buffering, which is basically social and psychological support. "Friends may encourage health-promoting behaviors like proper sleep and exercise, and nag when you drink too much or smoke," explains Eric Loucks, a psychologist and epidemiologist at McGill University who studies the effects of social isolation on heart disease. Maya had a lot of friends who served as stress buffers, driving her to the doctor, filling her freezer with soups, and calling in the twilight hours, when she’d sometimes feel melancholy.
How Loneliness Harms Us
Scientists are also finding that we’re hardwired to seek out others. Too much alone time and our bodies send out distress signals. "Humans are fragile as individuals, so when we’re alone, we are in a state of potential danger," says John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. When you feel lonely, your brain responds by increasing levels of the hormone cortisol, putting you on alert, as though an enemy were present.
With long periods of loneliness, the overload of cortisol can harm us, increasing our chances of getting chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and hypertension, Cacioppo says. It can also destroy neurons that affect memory and interfere with sleep. So much for going it alone.
We’re so wired to make friends that the absence of companionship registers in our brains like pain. Naomi Eisenberger, a research psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, has found that when people experience social exclusion, it activates the same region of the brain as when we’re physically hurt. "Since humans need others to survive," she says, "we’ve adapted this mechanism to feel distressed when we’re separated from others, so that we’ll seek them out."