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Contact with other people acts as a vaccine

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Posted: Friday, June 8, 2012 12:06 am

Community Perspective

My best friends have become “snow birds,” migrating to Florida and Costa Rica for most of the year. Sure, we see them when they come back to Alaska. We use email and the telephone to stay in touch, but it’s just not the same as having dinner together every weekend or going on long walks with our dogs.

I’m not unusual. Friendships are declining in both quantity and quality, according to a study of more than 1,500 people published in the June 2006 issue of American Sociological Review.

Since 1985, the average number of confidants people dropped by half, from four to two.

At least 25 percent of Americans have no confidants at all. Our dependence on our spouses and partners for our only close friend almost doubled, going from 5 percent to 9 percent. If these people lose their spouse or partner, their social network is destroyed at one blow.

Females and people with more education were most likely to say they had close friends. Men often have no close friends but their partners or spouses.

The high rate of divorce in the United States also decreases friendships. Not only have people lost their mates, but they lose many friends who were closer to their spouses than to them.

Friends not only create happiness and a sense of well-being, but also have strong benefits for your health. 

When human beings have their friends with them, they get less stressed.

Researchers placed 34 students at the University of Virginia at the bottom of a steep hill and loaded them up with heavy backpacks.

Some students stood next to their friends, while others stood alone. Those standing with their friends estimated the steep hill as far lower. The longer the friendship, the lower they thought the hill was.

Even cows get lonely and get health benefits from being with friends.

In one study, some cows were penned with their best friend (the cow they spend a lot of time with). Others were penned with a familiar cow who wasn’t their best friend. Their heart rates were measured every 15 seconds.

When the cows had their best friend with them, their heart rates were far lower than when they were with a cow that was not. They also gave more milk.

The research showing that friends increase your health is so strong that some researchers call friends a “behavioral vaccine.”

Reviewing 148 studied that looked at social relationships and health, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, found that being lonely and isolated was as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic.

Being lonely was just as harmful to your health, the study found, as not exercising or being obese.

The effect of friendships on health is also evident from a study of survival rates after breast cancer. The participants were 2,835 women from the Nurses’ Health Study who were diagnosed with stages 1 to 4 breast cancer.  

The socially isolated women were far more likely to die not only from breast cancer but from other causes as well.

These socially isolated women were less likely to have someone to care about them, take them to their doctors, help them when they needed it, and just be there to talk.

More friends led to longer life during the following 10 years in an Australian study. The participants included close to 1,500 people aged 70 or more.

The risk of developing dementia was lowest in people with a wide variety of friends and relatives, found a Swedish study.

People who have good friends, many studies show, have more robust immune systems and are less likely to succumb to infectious diseases.

Not all friends are good for you. When depressed women talk about their problems over and over again with a friend, for example, they get even more depressed. But this “trouble talk” is an exception.

If you have more than two close friends, consider yourself luckier than most of us. You’ll enjoy life more, stay healthier and live longer.

Judith Kleinfeld, a long-time columnist for the Daily News-Miner, holds a doctorate from Harvard and is a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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