5 surprising health benefits of close friends

Strong social ties — even one good pal — may keep you feeling young at any age.

Older men playing chess.

Even if you’re separated from your friends, there are plenty of good reasons to stay in touch with them. Let’s start with the most basic one: Humans are social creatures. We are biologically wired to crave interactions with one another.

Friends bring more than just fun to your life; they also play a pivotal role in your long-term health. When it comes to healthy habits, good relationships are as important as getting enough sleep, eating right and not smoking, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

“Having a few close friends is positively associated with higher self-esteem, less substance use and abuse, and a reduced rate of depression and anxiety,” says Courtney Bolton, Ph.D., a psychologist who works with clients on developing social and friendship skills.

A lack of community has the opposite effect: Loneliness is considered a powerful stressor that can put you at a greater risk for depression, heart disease and other poor health outcomes, warns the National Institutes of Health.

Here are five ways your friendships can help add more years to your life — and life to your years. 

Friend Benefit #1: They Help You Send Stress Packing 

If you’ve ever had a buddy help you out of a tight spot, you know firsthand how a friend can relieve stress. When someone pitches in to solve a problem, that’s a short-term stress buster. 

Over the long term, friendship may be your secret weapon against stressful life events — things like divorce, chronic illness or caring for a spouse or parent.

The chronic stress from these events can ramp up your risks of arthritis, heart disease and other chronic illnesses. Friends, says Boulton, can help you weather the storm and steer you toward healthier coping strategies, such as going for a swim instead of grabbing a smoke.

What’s more, your social ties can actually influence your physical health through biological pathways, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Feeling connected to others helps your body regulate stress hormones so that you’re not on constant high alert.

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Friend Benefit #2: You May Catch Fewer Colds

Having people you love in your life can help strengthen your immune system, so you may get colds and flu less often, the APA notes.

Remember, loneliness is a stressor, and chronic stress reduces immunity. How? According to research from the Ohio State University Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, chronic stress interferes with your body’s ability to generate enough white blood cells to fight off the germs that can make you sick. 

That’s particularly true for older adults who are naturally prone to stress-related effects on the immune system, the APA adds.

Friend Benefit #3: You’ll Age More Gracefully

Heading into your later years with a tight social network may even increase your longevity and help serve as a protective shield against a host of health problems, including cancer, heart disease, depression and addiction.

In 2015, researchers at Brigham Young University set out to see how social ties affected people’s overall health and well-being. They reviewed 148 studies involving more than 300,000 participants. 

Their conclusion? People with strong relationships had a 50% higher chance of survival — putting the dangers of a lack of relationships on a par with smoking 15 cigarettes a day and obesity. 

Friend Benefit #4: They Help Sharpen Your Mind

Friends keep your brain busy. “Social connectedness is good for mental health and cognitive function,” says David J. Puder, M.D., medical director of the MEND partial and intensive outpatient program at the Loma Linda University Behavioral Medicine Center. 

Multiple studies have linked social activity with better brain health and functioning, says Dr. Puder. The Harvard School of Public Health, for example, notes that people with strong social connections are less likely to experience cognitive decline than those who are lonely.

Finding fun ways to stay connected and engaged these days isn’t easy. But it doesn’t have to be complicated: Simply making plans to phone your friends on a regular basis is all you need. If you’re all comfortable with technology, you can take advantage of group text chains and video calls.  

Need other ideas to stay connected? Check out the 5 Ways to Combat Loneliness here

Friend Benefit #5: They Hold You Accountable

When it comes to reaching your health goals, the buddy system can’t be beat. It’s all about having someone check on you. 

Give it a try: Let’s say you want to quit smoking. Tell your friend about your plan and ask him or her to check in with you every day. Knowing that someone will want a regular update can give you the motivation you need to stick to your plan and follow through. 

Friends can also help reinforce good habits. For example, teaming up with a workout buddy is a time-tested way to stick with a fitness goal, according to the American Council on Exercise. In fact, a 2015 Michigan State University study found that having a workout partner can increase the amount of time you exercise.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to always exercise together. You and a pal can make plans to do the same workout on the same days, or challenge each other to take the same number of steps in a day. 

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