The Source of Healing

Enlisting mind, body and spirit to heal

Friendships Promote A Healthy Heart - Even While You Sleep

Strong friendships have a positive impact on blood pressure.

If my previous blog on friendship slowing tumor growth is not enough to justify that hour and half you just spent on the phone parsing stressful life events with your closest friend, check out new research in next month's Journal of Circulation, which shows that a supportive friendship can actually help save you from having a heart attack.

It has been known for some time that both the size and diversity of a person's social network are strongly linked with the risk of dying from heart disease. Now researchers at the University of Pittsburgh examined the range of social interactions and the frequency of social contacts for 224 white and African American women, and then correlated the results with nocturnal (sleeptime) blood pressure readings. The researchers were looking for a healthy (greater than 10%) drop in blood pressure during sleep; a smaller than normal (less than 10%) drop in blood pressure during sleep is associated with increased heart attack risk.

After adjusting for mitigating factors like differing health behaviors, individual hormonal profiles, and other illnesses the researchers demonstrated that women with frequent, diverse social interactions were more likely to have healthy sleeptime blood pressure profiles than their more isolated counterparts. Interestingly, the relationship between frequency of social contact and healthy blood pressure was strongest for the African American women in the study.

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This is important information for all of us. But especially for people who work at home, like stay-at-home moms, who may be prone to isolation, an investment of time and effort into strengthening your social network is an investment in your health.

Many valid arguments regarding stress reduction and decreased risk for heart attack can be made to explain the relationship between friends and heart health that's been teased out by this innovative study. But I like to think of it in terms of our friends being those to whom we give our hearts for safekeeping. It's nice that the biology proves this to be true.

Woodson Merrell, M.D., is an integrative physician based in Manhattan.

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