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Get By With a Little Help From Your Friends

New research shows the value of friendships and social networks.
By Colleen Oakley
WebMD Magazine - Feature

You probably know most of the "secrets" of longevity: Don't smoke, eat your greens, exercise every day, get enough sleep, relax. But this one may be new to you: Make more friends.

A recent study found that people with a large network of pals were 22% less likely to die early. Other studies show that friends have a positive impact on stress levels and brain health -- even your immune system. (People with more friends have fewer colds).

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As you age, though, making friends isn't as easy as when you were a kid -- maybe because there's no adult sandbox to go play in. "Research shows that people make friends through repeated unplanned interactions," says Rebecca G. Adams, PhD. She's a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "It's not that we lose our ability to make friends as we get older. It's that we're less likely to be in situations conducive to friendship formation."

The key to expanding your social circle? Break out of it. "Making new friends can be similar to dating," says Nicole Zangara, LCSW, author of Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. "To meet new people, you have to try new activities that interest you. If you like hiking, join a hiking group. If you're religious, try a new church. Get yourself out there."

But that's only half the battle. For an acquaintance to become a friend, you have to open up, which can be daunting. "As we get older, we're less likely to self-disclose to people we don't know well," says Adams, "but for a relationship to get to the next level, you have to reveal something of yourself."

At the same time you're making new friends, don't forget the ones who have been there all along. "It can be equally difficult to maintain friendships over the natural transitions of life," Zangara says. "If you find that you're not connecting, bring it up, because they're probably feeling the same way."

Friendship Q&A

Q: "I have a friend who's become increasingly difficult to hang out with. She seems so negative and doesn't really seem to care about my life. Should I stick it out?"

Brooke Hight, 33, elementary school teacher, Atlanta

A: "The short answer? It depends. Like romantic relationships, friendships ebb and flow, so before giving your friend the heave-ho, try talking with her about how you feel. If she's not receptive or if you find you always feel worse after you spend time with her, it might be time to call it quits. Letting go -- especially of a longtime friend -- can be difficult. But it will leave more room in your life for people who are supportive and caring, which can be a boon to your long-term health."

Nicole Zangara

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of "WebMD Magazine." 

Reviewed on January 05, 2014

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