June 16, 2005

Friends May Be Key to Living Longer

NEW YORK -- Looking for the secret of a long life? Look closely at your friends. New research suggests that having a strong network of friends helps people live longer.

"Older people with better social networks with friends were less likely to die over a 10-year follow-up period than older people with poorer friends networks," Lynne C. Giles of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, told Reuters Health.

But in what may come as a surprising finding to older people who rely on their children and other relatives, having a large network of relatives was not associated with longer life, Giles and her colleagues report in the July issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

"Of course, that is not to say that social networks with children and other relatives are not important in many other ways," Giles said.

Study after study has shown that elderly people who are connected with lots of people tend to live longer lives. However, few studies have examined whether different types of relationships -- with friends, partners, children and other relatives -- have different effects on longevity.

Giles's team set out to examine the relationship between various types of social networks and longevity in a group of almost 1,500 Australians who were at least 70 years old. Volunteers answered questions about their social networks and then were followed for 10 years.

The researchers took into account several factors that could have influenced how long a person lived, including sex, age, health and smoking status.

What the study showed was that older people who reported better social networks of friends were more likely to be alive at the end of the study than people with fewer friends. Similarly, people who reported strong networks of confidants -- people with whom participants shared a close, confiding relationship -- tended to live longer.

But relationships with children and relatives did not have an effect on survival in the study.

Giles and her team are not sure why friends seemed to help people live longer. They speculate that friends may influence people to engage in more healthy behavior, such as not smoking or not drinking too much. Another possibility, according to the researchers, is that friends may help boost people's self-esteem.

"The list of answers to this question is potentially long and complex," according to Dr. Carlos F. Mendes de Leon, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who is the author of an editorial that accompanies the study.  

It is possible that having a strong network of friends may have beneficial physical effects, the reverse of the negative physical effect stress can have, according to Mendes de Leon.

As for the lack of a relationship between longer life and family relationships, Mendes de Leon suggests that it may reflect the tendency of people to rely on family members when their health begins to decline.

Whatever the reason for the beneficial effects of friends, Giles believes that "strategies to promote the establishment and maintenance of these relationships in later life warrant additional attention."


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University in Adelaide, Australia

SOURCE: Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, July 2005.