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To Age Well, You Need Friends

Your health depends on stable friendships.

Who is likely to be happier and healthier at 90? A woman who moves across the country to live with her daughter and sees a grandchild every month, but rarely interacts with friends—or a woman who socializes with friends all the time, and sees family members mainly on holidays?

With any two real people, the answer depends on all kinds of factors. But most people assume that strong family ties are a bigger influence on well-being in old age than friendship. If you don’t have much family, you might worry that you’re likely to end up old and sick and alone. That assumption is wrong, according to an April, 2017 study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging. Actually, as you age, friendship is thicker than water.

Over the years, much research shows, your friends influence your happiness and habits—whether you’ll smoke or drink, work out, stay thin or become obese. The new research found that the importance of friendship increases with age. This works both ways—quarrels with friends, it suggests, are tied to chronic health problems. The key is to keep friendships in good order. You may need to repair, or replace, friendships as you age.

But if you don't have a husband or devoted child, don't despair.

The study, designed by Michigan State University psychology professor William J. Chopik, looked at two sets of data—one drawn from people around the world at different ages, and another from older Americans.

The first data set came from more than 270,000 volunteers ages 15 to 99, from nearly a hundred countries. The volunteers answered questions about how highly they valued different kinds of relationships and how happy they were. Instead of tracking the same people over time, it tracked "representative" groups of different ages at intervals over the years.

The result: from about age 65 on, valuing friendship highly turned out to make a bigger difference than it did when you were younger. Strong family ties were linked to happiness, but their importance stayed about the same over the life span.

In a separate analysis, researchers examined data from close to 7,500 American volunteers in their sixties and seventies. This time, the data followed the same people over time.

Getting support—be it from spouses, children and friends—predicted greater well-being over an eight-year period, although more extended family didn’t seem to make much difference.

These questionnaires asked about “strain” within relationships, among other questions. It turned out that people who experienced strain within friendships were more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and psychiatric problems. This was true even if they also had support from immediate family. Strain with family, surprisingly, wasn't tied to more illness.

To add this all up, valuing your immediate family is good for your health and happiness at any age. But the older you become, the more important it is to have strong friendships. You're happier and healthier when they're happy--and you're more likely to be sick when you don't value friendship or your friendships are in trouble.

Other research has found what might seem to be a contradictory observation—we tend to socialize with fewer people as we age. But, as Chopik points out, we also invest more in a choice few. Those choice few help to keep us healthier, not just happier. “Friendship quality,” he writes, “often predicts health more so than the quality of other relationships.”

Some of us take friendship for granted—friends are supposed to be “easy,” while we work at family relations. But over the years, friendships run into trouble as well. You can decide to work through those trouble spots—ideally, getting closer—and move away from friendships that drag down your health. Don’t meet the old drinking buddies at the bar if you overdrink; see your girlfriend who eats a box of cookies at midnight for a morning walk instead.

As you get older, people move away, divorce and die. You no longer may see work buddies if you retire. You may find yourself needing to make new friends. Community organizations, religious groups and volunteer work may make all the difference.

In my neighborhood on the Upper West Side in New York City, volunteers created Bloomingdale Aging in Place, which now offers more than 50 activity groups, from knitting to soup making, poetry and juggling. BAIP also organizes dinners and parties. These groups are all run by volunteers and the overhead is the cost of a website. Get some friends together and do this yourself!

Invest in friendships that inspire you to stay healthy and you have a good chance at being healthy—in fact, this is probably the best bet you can make, the older you get.

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