By Mark Underwood
Is it possible that having close connections with good friends, old and new, is good for your health?
Research suggests that if you cultivate a strong inner circle of friends, people you can count on through thick and thin, you may indeed gain an abundance of health benefits.
Not only do strong friendships make you feel happy and close to other people, these connections have several built-in health pluses.
Beyond the emotional connections and good vibes that quality friendships offer, strong social connections can reduce stress, boost our immunity, and ward off memory loss and depression.
Buddy System Benefits
Scientists have found that those positive feelings you have after hanging out with your best friends are not just emotionally based. Good friendships also affect your serotonin, a neurotransmitter which sends signals from one area of the brain to another.
Although serotonin is manufactured in the brain where it performs its primary functions, some 90% of our serotonin supply is found in the digestive tract and in blood platelets. Of our approximately 40 million brain cells, most are influenced either directly or indirectly by serotonin.
When you interact with friends, serotonin is believed to influence your mood, behavior, sleep, memory and learning.
Strong friendships have another interesting benefit. Can friends help you live longer? Turns out they can do just that. Studies have shown that strong social networks can give you a 50 percent better chance of living a long life regardless of your age or gender. That conclusion was based on a study that followed 300,000 people for more than seven and a half years.
Another study, the 2005 Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging, also found that people with good supportive relationships were 22 percent more likely to outlive their peers who had the smallest number of good friends.
As you would expect, there’s a lot of excitement over studies like these because they suggest you can modify your life and tap into similar health benefits. The message is clear: If you have good friends, you can boost your health.
Quality versus Quantity
Is there such a thing as having the “right” amount of friends? If you have 3,000 friends on Facebook does that count as having a strong social network?
Studies have suggested that it’s not the number of people who have “befriended” you or like you on the Internet or you see on a regular basis that counts when it comes to health benefits. What is important is quality over quantity.
So trust your instincts when it comes to making close friends. If you are someone who prefers to interact on a one-on-one basis and get to know people that way, that’s fine. Maybe you prefer to get together with people in small groups. That works too as long as you have several close friends you can count on to be there for you when you need them.
Some psychologists have suggested that friends from different backgrounds, with varying hobbies and life-interests, actually give us an increased number of health benefits.
In terms of brain fitness that makes sense. Our brains need to be challenged. We need to stimulate our minds with a variety of experiences, especially as we age.
Find friends that you can have insightful conversations with, friends who enjoy similar books, art and movies. Like any muscle, the brain needs regular exercise to remain strong. A diverse set of friends will help your mind stay active and enjoy learning late into life.
Mark Underwood is a neuroscience researcher, president and co-founder of Quincy Bioscience, a biotech company located in Madison, Wisconsin focused on the discovery and development of medicines to treat age related memory loss and the diseases of aging. Mark has been taped as an expert in the field of neuroscience for The Wall Street Journal Morning Radio, CBS and CNN Radio among others. Mark is also a contributor to the “Brain Health Guide” which highlights the research at Quincy Bioscience and offers practical tips to help keep health brain function in aging. More articles and tips for healthy aging can be found at: www.TheGoodNewsAboutAging.com.
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