February is National Heart Disease Awareness month and there are thousands of articles that provide scientific evidence and methods for lower our heart disease risk…but did you know that having friends can help your heart as well?

A recent study showed that people with strong personal relationships increased their chance of survival over a certain time period by 50 percent! For reference, that’s about the same as quitting smoking and almost twice as good as engaging in physical activity! So let’s take a look at a few ways that having friends in your life can help you live healthier and longer.

That’s me on the left and my long time #BFF, Kathy on the far right in 1986 or 1987 in the gym of our high school!*
  • Stress. While a little stress can be good in that it can boost your system in times of crises, constant stress has a very negative impact on both your emotional and physical well-being. But having a strong social/personal network helps to alleviate this type of stress. Being social and having people that you can trust and rely on helps to alleviate the type of chronic stress that can come from or be exacerbated by being isolated and alone.
  • Overall health. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, using “biomarkers” (ie blood pressure, body mass index, waist circumference and levels of the inflammation marker C- reactive protein) of hundreds of thousands of people aged 12 to 91 and then studying the health of those with a strong social circle and those that were more isolated were eye-opening. For example, for the older subjects with a lack of social connections their risk of high blood pressure was more than double (124%) that of their social counterparts. Social isolation is a higher risk factor for high blood pressure than having diabetes, which has a 70% risk of causing high blood pressure.
  • Mental. A 2012 study discovered that older people’s risk of dementia increased when they are living with a feeling of loneliness. This study followed 2000 people 65 and older over a three year period who had no dementia at the start of the study. For those that stated at the outset of the study that they felt lonely, 13.4% developed dementia; while only 5.7% developed dementia in the group that did not feel a sense of loneliness.
  • Influence. Yes, our friends can be a bad influence on us, but as we get older and start seeking out people that we trust and value, they tend to have a positive influence on our lives. This is something I do not need a study for because I’ve seen it in my own life. In October 2017, I joined a CrossFit gym because I made a commitment to myself to get healthy after my daughter left for college. Yes, taking the step to get more active was done on my own, but what happened after I joined is where the friends “influence” takes effect. Crossfit is a community that welcomes any and all people into its fold and I now have a big circle of friends not only in the gym but in my “real” life. We talk about training tips to battle our weaknesses, diet strategies, work issues, home issues, and yes, we socialize outside of the gym as well. And I as I have become healthier, I have had some of my non-gym friends start to engage and ask me for tips to improve their own health. So the influence of our friends and family can have a huge impact on our willingness and ability to better ourselves.
  • Support. Life is hard and sometimes just downright stinks. But having a strong social network can help you get through the worst of times. A 1989 study published in The Lancet showed that women with breast cancer that were randomly assigned to support groups with other cancer patients reported on having a better quality of life and lived longer than those that were not put into such support groups. In the intervening 30 years, there have been numerous similar studies and the jury is still out on the increased life span of such support, BUT there is strong agreement that these types of support groups do improve the quality of life of the patients and that’s a positive in anyone’s life who is battling cancer.
  • Rejection. While many of these studies were done on adults, a 2011 study conducted on 4th graders showed that having a strong group of friends helped to reduce the stress of children who were picked on or excluded from activities. We’ve all suffered rejection at some point, and those times that we had a friend or two to lean on and listen to us makes the pain easier to bear. The study with the 4th graders showed that those that suffered rejection but who had friends had lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
  • Fun! Yes, it is very possible to have fun by yourself, but having at least one other person with you to encourage you to take chances or who has your crazy sense of humor allowing you laugh until tears are rolling down your cheeks helps to reduce your stress and increase your emotional happiness.
Above is myself, Leanne & Laura in 1995, below is us in 2017!*

For the most part, the studies showed that quality over quantity matters. Having five people that you consider close friends who you not only can have fun with but trust them to help you during your bad times is better than dozens of “acquaintance” type friends. AND it’s important to remember that you can leave a friendship that has become toxic or stressful. Just as strong and healthy relationships have a positive effect on our mental and physical well-being, unhealthy relationships can have a very negative impact on our lives.

And make sure you are making friends IRL (in real life) not just on social media. While having positive online friends can help improve your life, it’s vital to have real flesh and bone people that you can call or see in person. The University of Oxford published a study on 3,300 British people and found that though on average each person had 155 Facebook “friends”, the number the respondents felt they could call on was just four. And don’t think that your closest friends have to be geographically close. In this digital age, maintaining a close relationship may require a bit more effort, but the reward of having that person that knows your “tone” in a text and calls you for the details despite being 1,500 miles away, is worth far more than 15 people that don’t notice when your normally bubbly persona is MIA for a few days.

*Kathy and I have been friends since junior high school…that’s over 36 years! Laura and I met in the fall of my junior year high school (1985) and then she introduced me to Leanne in 1995. We have been through thick and thin over the years and I know for a fact that my life is 100% better because I know that we can count on each other regardless of the fact that we no longer live near one another or see each other all the time. We have gone through some of the absolute best and worst times together and I know that it has made my life 100% better having them in my corner. When you find “your people” it’s important that you work to keep them in your life.

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