Friends: The Best Medicine For A Long, Healthy Life

Friends or family? It's not usually a choice people have to make. But the older you get you are more and more often confronted by this choice.

A friend, recently widowed may decide to completely change their life. As a result, they "hit the road" and move out of your daily life to begin new adventures that no longer include you or your interests. At first you stay in touch over the phone or on Facebook but with time you notice that you've drifted further and further apart. You no longer feel supported or close enough to share what's really going on, not only in your daily life but in your interior life as well.

Or a parent whom you have cared for over the last decade passes on; you're left with a huge void in your life. Not only have you lost a parent, you have lost your daily purpose your daily routine. You gradually realize that you are physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted and depleted. Over the years your friends have drifted out of your life as your responsibilities to your parent(s) increased.

This is what happened to me when I decided to leave the life it took decades to build to return to my parent's home and care for their daily needs as their health, both physical and cognitive declined over the course of a decade. While I don't regret my choice, I wonder what those years would have brought me had I chosen differently; had I chosen to stay with my "family" of friends instead. Ultimately, not only did it impact my network of friends, it dramatically impacted my long-term financial well-being .

Nonetheless, the benefit of moving back in with my parents after living independently for over thirty-plus years was that I developed an adult relationship with them. Sure, there were times when we slipped into the parent/child dynamic; on my part, at least, that was out of respect. After all, they were still my parents and I was in their home, their world. Still, while we became friends at a new level of intimacy, there remained a distance between who I had become personally and professionally and who they needed me to be.

Research is mounting to show that if you had to make the "Sophie's choice" between friends and family, fiends are probably better for you. Having a diverse group of friends is good for your health, your longevity, your morale, and your memory. Adult children and/or relatives as your main source of social contact doesn't confer the same benefits.

In two separate studies, researchers at the University of Michigan recently sought to discover whether the link between close relationships, health, and well-being are static across life, or if the benefits of friendships are most evident in older adults when concerns about physical health are greater.

For the first portion of the study, the researchers surveyed 271,053 adults and found that valuing friendships was related to better functioning, particularly among older adults. Meanwhile, valuing familial relationships "exerted a static influence on health and well-being across the lifespan" according to the findings of the study.

There's further evidence in a study of nearly 3000 nurses with breast cancer. Having a spouse didn't help survival but having a friendship network did. Given that most of us intuitively know how precious our friends are, it's odd so much fuss is made in public life about the importance of marriage, family and children and so little about the crucial role of friendship.

Yet, loneliness is a serious health problem. It can be as detrimental as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic, according to Dr. Julianne Hold-Lunstad, of Brigham Young University who reviewed 148 studies on social networks and health. Loneliness is twice as bad for our health as being obese. Letting friendships slide or failing to nurture them can be dangerous to our health - the research is loud and clear.

But why should it be that friends are more likely than family to improve our sense of inclusion? For a start, we choose our friends, and the friends we keep into our older years are likely to be tried and true. On the other hand, we're stuck with our adult children and relatives. As much as we may love them they can bring us grief, worry and aggravation. You have to put more energy into friendship and that gives people a sense of autonomy, purpose and independence that seems to be good for them. With family inclusion is all too often considered a given.

Adult children play a different role from friends. They provide practical help - mow the lawn, fix things, grocery shop, and ferry parents to doctor's appointments. Most provide important emotional support too. In the best of all worlds, older people have friends and family.

What's your opinion on the importance of friends and family?

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