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Why Friends Are Good for Your Health and Well-Being

New research reinforces our need for people who can share our joys and sorrows


spinner image three women sitting in a garden drinking tea and having good conversation to reap the health benefits of friendship
Tara Moore / Getty Images

When her father died, Margarite Avendano found herself “a little bit alone” after tending to him full time as his health declined. 

As a caretaker, she says, “you kind of hide yourself. There’s a stigma. You become more isolated.”

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So she decided to work on her own health — by making new friends. She joined an online companionship community and started going to the Y.

“I was so shy at first, but slowly I found people of similar ages and with similar interests,” says Avendano, who describes herself as being in her 70s and lives in San Mateo, California. She made friends who get together to go hiking, dancing and to dinner and the movies.

Friends help reduces stress and fatigue

Soon she noticed that she’d gotten “more alert and focused. I became healthier and more conscious of everything I did, because there was a reason to get up every morning and to get out and have fun and move.”

Avendano is not imagining these positive effects. A new study of older adults finds that even momentary social interactions with friends reduce fatigue and stress. It follows a wealth of earlier research showing that friendships later in life forestall dementia, Alzheimer’s and physical decline.

“There are a lot of sneaky things that happen when you’re socializing that you don’t even think about,” says Bryan James, an epidemiologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago and one of the most prolific investigators of this topic. “You’re actually being physically active, going to a museum together, or just on a walk, and engaging with the world around you.”

Conversations with friends can also exercise the brain in the same way as the puzzles doctors recommend that people use to stay sharp, James says.

“It cognitively stimulates you. You have to remember people. You have to remember people’s names. These things activate parts of your brain that aren’t activated when you’re sitting on your couch.”

An epidemic of loneliness

The latest findings about this come in the wake of a report by the U.S. surgeon general warning of “an epidemic” of loneliness and isolation in the country. Even before COVID-19, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in May, half of American adults reported experiencing loneliness — a condition Murthy said is worse for their health than obesity, physical inactivity or smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day.

That’s a particular concern for older people, says Alyssa Goldman, a sociologist at Boston College and coauthor of the latest study of how even short interactions with friends can help.

Among over-50s, 1 in 4 say they feel isolated at least some of the time, and 1 in 3 lack regular companionship, according to another pre-pandemic survey, by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

In a study funded by the National Institute on Aging, Goldman and Cornell sociologist Erin York Cornwell asked older adults to take brief surveys on their smartphones five times a day asking who they were with and how they felt. Those in the company of non-family-member friends and neighbors were significantly less likely to experience fatigue or stress.

A shoulder to lean on

Goldman theorizes that the reasons are similar to those that James gives.

“It’s also that maybe older adults — and this is speculation, since we don’t have data on the conversation topics — if they’re stressed about a problem, talking with a friend may provide a new perspective compared to what someone might hear from family members.”

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Other large-scale, yearslong studies have found that frequent social activity reduces cognitive decline by an average of 70 percent, and reduces physical disability.

Conversely, loneliness has been associated with decreased cognitive function, an increased risk of dementia and a faster decline in motor skills. And negative social interactions, such as rejection or unsympathetic behavior, worsen cognitive decline.

Having friends is as simple an intervention as it is effective, James says.

Most other steps to preserve health in old age “are things you almost have to force people to do,” he says. “We all know it’s better to eat healthy,  but we don’t want to. It’s a lot easier to sit on the couch rather than getting out to exercise.”

Introverts vs. extroverts

But being social, at least for extroverts, “is something you’re just naturally drawn to. Something we enjoy doing is actually good for us.”

As for introverts, “if you’re an introverted person and like to be cut off from other people, maybe you’re okay with that,” James says. His own mother, for example, is very social, but his father likes to stay home and listen to audiobooks.

“I don’t think he needs to interact with as many people as my mother or I do. There’s an interaction between how much you enjoy being social and how much you get out of it, so introverted people may not benefit as much” from social interaction.

Dyane Protzmann Rogelstad considers herself an introvert. A professional musician and a music teacher who lives in northern Colorado, she has made connections with friends who share her interest in music, however. One has become a regular brunch companion; she meets another to have dinner and watch football.

“That’s an intellectual high for me because we always talk about interesting things,” says Rogelstad, who is 58. “It’s absolutely a lifeline.”

Kim Arasato, 64, moved to California, where she didn’t know anyone. She ended a long-term relationship. And her coworkers in her job as a school counselor are mostly younger than she is.

But she managed to make friends, including Avendano, who occasionally meets up with her for hikes and conversation.

“I’m a pretty independent person, but I’m also an extremely social person,” Arasato says. “I need people. I love friendships. It just really helps you feel good about what you’re doing.”

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Ways to make new friends

The large body of research showing that friendships late in life improve both physical and mental health begs the question: How can older adults make new friends?

Younger people form connections much more easily — at school, at college, at work, on sports teams, through their kids’ activities, says Andrew Dowling, founder and CEO of Stitch, one of several apps and websites that help older adults connect, and that Avendano, Rogelstad and Arasato all used to find new friends.

“But after those things stop, they can find themselves isolated,” Dowling says. “Partially it’s hard because our brains are wired to make us apprehensive about meeting strangers.”

Sociologist Goldman has seen local libraries start groups for older adults to create new ties, and a campaign to install outdoor benches where older friends can sit and chat.

“There’s a huge public health focus right now on what can we do in communities to help older people who are living independently find friendships,” Goldman says.

She and others also urge starting younger to reinforce friendships so they last for life.

“The message here is to be as socially active for as much of your life as you possibly can,” says epidemiologist James.

Places to socialize

Religious institutions and civic organizations such as Rotary clubs welcome new members. Community Meetups offer a way to meet like-minded people around shared interests, and some are specifically for older adults. And volunteering can be a bonding opportunity.

Several online organizations bring together older members, including Virtual Senior Center, which offers online courses in which classmates can interact. AARP offers a Virtual Community Center with classes and entertainment. Find out about AARP events in your area here. Teleparty syncs up movies and shows from streaming services so that people can watch them together, virtually, and chat about them. And Stitch is among several fast-growing services through which over-50s can host or attend events in person or online, from walks and museum visits to cocktail parties.

“It’s actually a natural part of getting older,” says Dowling, who is 54 and surfs with friends near his home in Australia: “You will find yourself alone unless you’re proactive about making social connections.”

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