The good feelings we get after having a lunch with friends or after a long phone conversation with a pal aren’t nothing, according to health researchers. Apparently, having close friends can change how we age – more specifically they can make our lives better. Female friendships can help see us through illness, can help us navigate careers, and can even change the physical realities of aging for better.
Research over the course of decades is now revealing that a number of factors can determine health risks as people get older. Some of the most commonly assessed are lifestyle (like smoking or diet) and family medical history. But, the study of female health is now showing that they benefit women in ways that no one anticipated.
The Nurses’ Health Study (or NHS) began in 1976, with just over 120,000 nurses taking part in 11 states and continues today. It is the largest study of women’s health factors and has addressed a variety of diseases. Questionnaires at regular intervals recorded the nurses’ smoking, contraceptive use, and later diet and social habits as the study evolved over time.
The questionnaires are still mailed out periodically and data is still being added to this decades old program that is changing how we think about aging. For instance, the NHS study so far has found that in their participants, exercise can reduce the occurrence of rheumatoid arthritis by 33%.
The NHS also found that having at least one close female friend improved health, and more friends were better, as long as the relationships were high-quality.
A 2000 UCLA study examined the fight-or-flight responses in women and found that the release of oxytocin in the brain from activities like breastfeeding helped to curbed the fear response. Likewise, female friendships also increase the release of this important feel good brain chemical, leading to increased survival overall and a better quality of life. This process is counteracted by testosterone in men, so they don’t receive the same chemical benefits as women do from friendship.
Other studies have examined the effect of loneliness on health and aging and have found that it can be a determinant of health status. Social isolation and loneliness can be as bad as smoking on one’s health! One study even found that having strong social interactions could also help prevent some disabilities.
Later in life strong female friendships have been shown to increase happiness, decrease depression, and have a positive effect. So don’t hesitate to spend more time with female friends, as their friendship is most likely improving your life in ways you can’t immediately see and the effects on health are particularly important as we decline in health or lose spouses.