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Have you ever wondered what really makes you healthy? Is it the vitamins you take or the food you eat? Is it the exercise you do and the medical care you get? All of these things are surely important. But I believe there is a hidden dimension to your health that you may have overlooked or ignored: your friendships.

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Friendships can make the difference between enjoying a long healthy life and just suffering through it.

Getting and staying healthy may very well depend on the quality, quantity, and resiliency of your friendships.

 Is Friendship the Forgotten Key to Health?

Scientists have been trying to unravel how our friendships affect our health for a long time.

Lisa Rankin, MD, in her groundbreaking work Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, states:

“When you feel loved, supported, and nurtured in a relationship, your mind experiences fewer stress responses and elicits more relaxation responses, and the physiology of the body responds accordingly.”

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She goes on to explain how this nurturing extends even to the doctor/patient relationship:

“When a patient who imbues the physician with positive meaning feels tended, trusting, reassured, and nurtured, the stress response is aborted. The relaxation response is induced. The patient starts to get better right away.”

friendshipNew research is revealing that your social network may be as important to your health as diet and exercise. Harris and Yang, et al,  published a study this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that reviewed 20 years of research in the area of social relationships, mortality, and health. This is the first study to link strong social relationships with specific health measures through the entire life cycle.

The findings are revealing and important to understand:

  • A person’s social network is an important independent health factor
  • In adolescents and older adults it was the quantity of connections that counted
  • For middle aged adults it was the quality of social relationships that mattered most
  • Social connectedness protected against abdominal obesity
  • Social isolation increased levels of systemic inflammation
  • In older adults, weaker social ties were more harmful than either hypertension or diabetes.

Overall, people with strong social bonds were found to be healthier than those who were more isolated. Social isolation induces strong stress reactions that increase systemic inflammation and levels of stress hormones, and it reduces mental function, eventually leading to ill health, disease, and decreased lifespan.

 Family And Longevity?

Surprisingly, research is showing that close relationships with relatives and children have almost no effect on longevity. One such study, led by Lynne C. Giles, et al, of the Centre for Ageing Studies at Flinders University, Australia, showed little impact on mortality from close family ties but did find such links with friendships.

Why is this so? The researchers believe it’s likely that friends stop people from indulging in bad habits such as smoking and drinking. Friendships may help ward off depression while raising self-esteem and provide much needed social support during stressful times.

 How Can You Strengthen Your Friendships and Social Bonds?

I know making and keeping friends is sometimes easier said than done. Maintaining social networks and making new friends is not always easy, especially as you get older. Diana Vilbert of Care2.com gives a few helpful suggestions that can serve as guideposts when connecting with friends. To summarize:

  • Make the time. Life can get very busy and make it difficult to stay in touch. Put aside some time to renew friendships and make that phone call you’ve been meaning to make.
  • Adapt to your friends’ lives. People’s lives change. They get married, have kids, move away. Don’t let these things end a good relationship. Adapt to the changes. Be creative in how you can get together with people you enjoy.
  • Volunteer. A great way to make new friends and start a new social network is to volunteer your services. You will meet people with similar values and interests.
  • Show up for the big events. When life’s big events occur, both negative and positive, a true friend shows up. Being physically present, whether it be for a wedding or a funeral, can deepen and cement a friendship.
  • Confide in an acquaintance. If you want to take a casual-relationship to the next level, confide something personal to that person. It will make them feel they are of value to you.

Conclusion

I’m sure you constantly hear about the value of exercise and diet in combatting disease and promoting good health. These are valuable things and should be pursued. But don’t forget that your friendships are a hidden treasure for your health. Friendships may be as valuable to your health as any diet or exercise regimen, so take the time to nurture them. Doing so can add many healthy years to your life. Besides, having good friends and being a good one in turn can make your life a hell of a lot more fun.


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