The Importance of Friendships on Health
My family and I recently traveled to Texas. My oldest son was slated to play in the Southwest Regional for the Little League World Series. What’s the first thing I did? Text a long-time friend of mine who was real involved in Little League in Texas and usually volunteered as official scorekeeper for the Southwest Regional. Here’s literally our texts back and forth:
“Tell me some good news”
(Picture of my child with the state tournament trophy) “We’re headed to Waco!”
“Woohooooooo!!! I’m very, very excited that you’re going to be there. This is unbelievably awesome.”
“We’ll all be there. I think we have a good team – we’ll see! You umping it?”
“No. I am in the score booth! And I tote water!”
“Nice! We’ll have to meet up. I’ll let you know more details once I know.”
“Have to – we are on a collision course, my brother!”
I met Erik on the baseball diamond as early as the tee-ball days of my childhood in Toomsuba, Mississippi, and we’ve been friends ever since. Once in Waco, we visited during the games and went jogging a couple of days (at a pace slow enough to chat). It’s hard for me to describe how much this reunion did my heart good. And by heart, I mean that feeling you get of a general well-being--mentally and physically.
Good friends are like that. Several studies have shown friends really can improve your overall health. Friends can help celebrate with you in the good times and support you in the not-so-good times. Another way to say this is they can boost your happiness and reduce your stress. A high-quality friend can improve your self confidence and increase your sense of belonging and purpose. Also, ever notice how much more responsible you are around good friends? If they tend to order a salad at lunch, you stand a higher chance of falling in line rather than ordering that fried awesomeness that you really want. Or how about if they don’t get that one last beer or they say they’re going jogging and ask you if you want to go? We tend to fall in line with those who influence us. These influences can be good but also bad (more on that in next week’s column).
Studies have shown that adults with strong social support have reduced risk of depression, high blood pressure, and obesity. Studies have also shown that folks with strong social networks flat out live longer than those with weaker community connections. Think about it. We all know someone who was in reasonably good health who retired from work (had a good daily social network) and transitioned to a much smaller, if any, social network only to have severe health problems or even death crop up quickly. How could this happen? Was it coincidence? Probably not. It likely had to do with abrubtlygoing from a good support networkto a poor one. This is why it’s important, no matter your stage in life, to make sure you or a loved one stay connected to a community of good quality friends.
How does all this play out on a molecular level? Telomeres. Ok, stay with me here. I know your eyes may have just glazed over as I segued to biology, but listen close. Chromosomes (the stuff that makes us who we are) are capped on the ends by these things called telomeres. Telomeres prevent these genetic structures from fraying. The less they fray, the less you age. We’re all born with telomeres of a certain length. As you age, they get shorter and shorter and thus protect less and less from fraying. Studies have shown the more social contact you have, the longer your telomeres and the more vibrant your health. There was a Costa Rican study looking at a close-knit
community that tended to have longer lives than other Costa Rican communities. It turned out they had longer telomeres. Also, interestingly, if people in this community moved away, they’re telomeres consistently were shorter than those who stayed within the community. Want to live longer? Have friends!
Can you have friendships, though, that are no good for your health? Absolutely. For me, Erik has always been one in a select group of phenomenal friends who encourages me, helps me in any way he can, and is also there to lovingly tell me the stuff sometimes I don’t want to hear. And I’m the same way with him. It’s a brotherhood that will benefit the health of us both as we age. In next week’s column, we’ll look at the factors that make a friendship healthy or not. Don’t miss it – I want you to be an expert on friendships! Healthier friendships mean a healthier you!
Dr. Thomas is a board-certified physician who operates Complete Health Integrative Wellness Clinic and Thomas Urology Clinic in Starkville, Mississippi.
This blog post is for informational purposes only and is, under no circumstances, intended to constitute medical advice or to create or continue a physician-patient relationship. If you have a medical emergency, you should immediately seek care from your nearest emergency room, and if you have specific health questions, you should consult your own physician.