Shelley Seale and Janet Pollok have been friends for close to 50 years, since the day their mothers first introduced them so they could play together. "We've been best friends ever since," says Seale, a writer who lives in Austin, Texas.
"My friendship with Janet means the world to me," says Seale. "I have known as far back as my memories go that she would always be there for me. She is one of those people I can call and know that she would be there, would do what she could, no questions asked and no hesitation."
"In today's world of online friendship and social media (which I do find valuable), of people moving around and relationships that don't last, it means something significant to me that there are true, solid relationships that last your entire life," Seale continues. "I love her without reserve and without conditions, and I know she loves me this way too! This is a rare thing and I consider myself lucky to have such a friend in my life."
Nobody needs to tell such good friends about the emotional benefits of friendship, but now scientists are finding out that having friends can also mean living a healthier life. Just a few examples...
- Friends can inspire each other to adopt healthier lifestyles.
- Social ties reduce stress, which can lower blood pressure.
- Hanging out with friends lowers the risk of depression.
- Dementia is less common among folks who have strong social ties.
- Support from friends can lower your risk of heart disease.
Unfortunately, says developmental psychologist Susan Pinker, author of The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make us Healthier, Happier and Smarter, the middle-aged are the loneliest group of all in the United States. A third of those between the ages of 45 to 49 say they have no one to confide in. If you're in that group, Pinker offers this advice: Find a friend, actually, find more than one!
“Those with a tightly connected circle of friends who regularly gather — even if it's just to eat and share gossip — are likely to live an average of 15 years longer than a loner," says Pinker.
According to Pinker, people with active social lives have greater physiological resilience and recover faster after an illness than those who are solitary. In a recent study of women with invasive breast cancer, socially integrated women — those with the most social ties, such as spouses, community ties, friendships, and family members — were shown to have significantly lower breast cancer death rates and disease recurrence than socially isolated women, one reason seeming to be that social contact appears to switch on and off the genes that regulate our immune responses to cancer and the rate of tumor growth.
“Social connections are as protective as regular exercise," says Pinker. "A hug, a squeeze on the arm, or a pat on the back lowers one' physiological stress responses which, in turn, helps the body fight infection and inflammation."
While technology can be a boon if you're unable to visit your friends regularly—Skype, FaceTime, or regular phone calls can help keep you connected—for the best health benefits, says Pinker, aim for real-world contact.
"Facebook may help you reconnect with people from your past or even meet new friends," she says, "but carrying on a friendship solely online will not provide you with the same physiological and emotional benefits that a night out with your BFF will."
Barbara Ritchie and Karen Johnson, who both live in Maryland, first became friends in high school, drawn together by the sudden death of a mutual friend. Through the years, though, "life" intervened and years would go by between phone calls, much less visits. It was an unexpected message from Karen's husband setting them up on a birthday "date" that brought them together again. Facebook solidified their reunion, and while the two can follow each other online, they make sure they see each other on a regular basis, even scheduling annual girlfriend getaways.
"Karen is truly like a sister to me," says Ritchie. "A best friend for life."
Those with solid face-to-face relationships like Ritchie and Johnson (even if they don't see each other daily or even weekly) are more likely to survive to old age, according to Pinker. A strong marriage helps, but if you're not married (and even if you are!), get together with friends and family frequently, take part in your faith community, or have another regular social commitment, such as choir practice, a hiking group, or a bridge club.
And men, take note! Men may have extensive "contact lists," but their actual close relationships tend to be fewer and less intense than women's. “When it comes to friendships, it's quality vs. quantity when you're talking about the difference between men and women," Pinker observes.
While childhood friends are special, new friends are important too. As we get older and our friends move away, become ill or die, it's even more important to keep adding to your roster of friends.
Gwen McCauley is finding that out now. Her best friend, Cathy, recently died suddenly. Her death has left McCauley with a "huge, deep hole in my heart."
"I feel lonely without her," says McCauley. "I crave the free-wheeling conversations we had about everything and anything. We complemented one another. We were sisters of the heart and soul. I feel less without her presence, yet I know I am not. But I miss her deeply."
But McCauley, who lives part time in Nova Scotia and part-time in Portugal, instinctively knows that good friendships bring another dimension to her life, and that mourning the loss of one friend doesn't mean she can't enjoy her other friends and, indeed, add to those numbers.
"I've become closer to some friends I already had since Cathy's death, but I'm always making new friends, with a special commitment to developing friendships with people significantly younger than I am and of both sexes," says McCauley, who is 69.
Ritchie and Johnson also continually celebrate their friendship. During one recent getaway to Las Vegas, "we talked about how grateful we are for our friendship and how truly blessed we are. We talked, joked, laughed, and reminisced. We gave a nod to Facebook, and a toast to our friend, Debbie, and the legacy she left for us - a best friend for life."