Study Shows Friends Are Important Not Only to Our Emotions But to Our Brains

“When you’re down and troubled
And you need some loving care
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night.

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there
You’ve got a friend.”

~ Carole King

Singer/songwriter Carole King’s classic 1971 song “You’ve got a friend” speaks to a deep need.

Everybody needs friends. They make life fun, they lighten our burdens, they support us when we’re down, they celebrate with us when we’re up. The luckiest of us fall in love with a friend.

But as we reach adulthood and search for a mate, friendships often slide away. Focused on romantic love, we have time only for “the one.” And that may be a mistake.

According to a new book based on research published in Scientific American, the joys and challenges of friendships contribute to our physical and mental health. They’re important as we age and appear to be a factor in longevity.

“Research shows that, after your mother, friendship may be the most meaningful type of love in your life,” writes science writer Judith Horstman in “The Scientific American Book of Love, Sex, and the Brain: the Neuroscience of How, When, Why and Who We Love,” 2012 (John Wiley & Sons).

The importance of friendship doesn’t lessen as we age, she argues, it strengthens.
In the chapter on friendship — one of 10 chapters on various aspects of love and sex — she cites a 2010 analysis of previous studies on social relationships. It concludes that a net of social support increases survival by “some 50 percent.” In some situations, depending on the number and complexity of the networks, the survival may go to 91 percent. The study appeared in the online journal PLoS One.

Other studies, from the 1990s to the 2000s, conducted by universities and health care organizations throughout the United States have found that older people with active social networks appear to have a lower risk for dementia and slower rate of memory decline than their more isolated age peers.

Human connection appears to be important not only to our emotions, as in “feeling good,” but also to the brain.

These benefits include, according to the research, lowering blood pressure and inflammation, “and thus heart disease and risk of stroke,” improving immune system functions, causing us to take better care of our own health — “for their sake if not for your own” — and relieving pain.

Yet while researchers are documenting the importance of friendship to our physical and mental well-being, Americans appear to be undergoing withdrawal from live social connections.

Among a variety of resources, Horstman cites a study that 25 percent of Americans report they have no close confidants. Other reports show that increasing numbers of us are living alone.

Social networking, which she also addresses, appears from the research to benefit those who have offline relationships already, compared with those who rely on online communication for their primary connections.

“The key (for now),” she writes, “appears to be having offline relationships as a base.” It’s a fascinating chapter in a thoroughly researched book that examines what happens in the brain and therefore in the body from first attraction or repulsion to falling in or out of love. It will leave you appreciating the friends you have and encourage you to make new ones, whatever your age.

She even gives tips: Accept all invitations, join a group, take a class, and turn off the computer, at least for awhile.

Friends are a treasure. Not everybody you meet will be your friend, but give them and yourself a chance.

While avoiding the people who literally make me sick, I pile on the ones who lighten my spirit and engage my soul. Like everybody else, I need a friend.

“Study Shows Friends Are Important Not Only to Our Emotions But to Our Brains” by Joan Aragone was originally published by the Contra Costa Times.

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