Loneliness affects all ages and it is killing us — literally. By building stronger communities with real human connections, finding ways to allow us to share values and interests we can build friendships which will improve both our physical and emotional health.

In the quest for better health, many people turn to doctors, self-help books or herbal supplements. But they overlook a powerful weapon that could help them fight illness and depression, speed recovery, slow ageing and prolong life: their friends.

Researchers are only now starting to pay attention to the importance of friendship and social networks in overall health. A 10 year Australian study found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends. And last year, Harvard researchers reported that strong social ties could promote brain health as we age.

“In general, the role of friendship in our lives isn’t terribly well appreciated,” said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “There is just scads of stuff on families and marriage, but very little on friendship. It baffles me. Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.”

While many friendship studies focus on the intense relationships of women, some research shows that men can benefit, too. In a six year of 736 middle-age Swedish men, attachment to a single person didn’t appear to affect the risk of heart attack and fatal coronary heart disease, but having friendships did. Only smoking was as important a risk factor as lack of social support.

Exactly why friendship has such a big effect isn’t entirely clear. While friends can run errands and pick up medicine for a sick person, the benefits go well beyond physical assistance; indeed, proximity does not seem to be a factor.

It may be that people with strong social ties also have better access to health services and care. Beyond that, however, friendship clearly has a profound psychological effect. People with strong friendships are less likely than others to get colds, perhaps because they have lower stress levels.

“People with stronger friendship networks feel like there is someone they can turn to,” said Karen A. Roberto, director of the centre for gerontology at Virginia Tech. “Friendship is an undervalued resource. The consistent message of these studies is that friends make your life better.”

This is adapted from a story from the New York Times. You can read the full story here.

"Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships."

Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina.

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