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Good Friends Are Good for You

They might get on your nerves at times, but good friends have bigger benefits than you may realize.
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WebMD Feature

"You got to have friends to make that day last long," sings Bette Midler. But good friends may help your life last longer, too, according to an Australian study. Conducted by the Centre for Ageing Studies at Flinders University, the study followed nearly 1,500 older people for 10 years. It found that those who had a large network of friends outlived those with the fewest friends by 22%.

Why is this so? The authors suspect that good friends discourage unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and heavy drinking. And the companionship provided by friends may ward off depression, boost self-esteem, and provide support. Also, as people age, they may become more selective in their choice of friends, so they spend more time with people they like.

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Close relationships with children and relatives, in contrast, had almost no effect on longevity. Lynne C. Giles, one of the four researchers who conducted the study, emphasized that family ties are important; they just seem to have little effect on survival.

The Health Benefits of Good Friends

Lots of research has shown the health benefits of social support.

One such study, reported in the journal Cancer, followed 61 women with advanced ovarian cancer. Those with ample social support had much lower levels of a protein linked to more aggressive types of cancer. Lower levels of the protein, known as interleukin 6, or IL-6, also boosted the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Women with weak social support had levels of IL-6 that were 70% higher in general, and two-and-a-half times higher in the area around the tumor.

In 1989, David Spiegel, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, published a landmark paper in Lancet. Itshowed that women with breast cancer who participated in a support group lived twice as long as those who didn't. They also had much less pain.

Sheldon Cohen, PhD, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, has shown that strong social support helps people cope with stress.

"Friends help you face adverse events," Cohen tells WebMD. "They provide material aid, emotional support, and information that helps you deal with the stressors. There may be broader effects as well. Friends encourage you to take better care of yourself. And people with wider social networks are higher in self-esteem, and they feel they have more control over their lives."

Other studies have shown that people with fewer friends tend to die sooner after having a heart attack than people with a strong social network. Having lots of friends may even reduce your chances of catching a cold. That's true even though you're probably exposed to more viruses if you spend a lot of time with others.

"People with social support have fewer cardiovascular problems and immune problems, and lower levels of cortisol -- a stress hormone," says Tasha R. Howe, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Humboldt State University. "Why? The evolutionary argument maintains that humans are social animals, and we have evolved to be in groups. We have always needed others for our survival. It's in our genes. Therefore, people with social connections feel more relaxed and at peace, which is related to better health."

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