Want to live a long life?  Make and keep a wide circle of friends: study

Jun. 15, 2005

Provided by: Canadian Press

TORONTO (CP) - As the old saying goes, you can choose your friends but you can't choose your family. A new study suggests if you want to live a long life, you should focus on the friends.

A team of Australian researchers have found that having a strong network of friends seems to help seniors live longer - more so, even, than having relatives, children or a close confidant.

And while they can't be sure why, the research team thinks it may be the choice aspect of friendship - the ability to surround yourself with people whose company you enjoy - that explains why friendships are so important to survival.

Lead author Lynne Giles of the University of Flinders in Adelaide admitted she hadn't anticipated that friends would be so much more important, in terms of longevity, than children when the team began to study what types of social networks were key in later life.

"I certainly don't want to say that children are bad for your survival. That's not the case," she said in an interview.

"But it seems that having that choice . . . in the relationship with your friends means that if that relationship becomes negative you have the choice to end that friendship or close ranks a little bit, and not do those things that you find detrimental to your well-being or health or whatever aspect of your life it seems to be affecting.

"With children and siblings, there isn't that same degree of choice."

Toronto geriatrician Dr. Howard Dombrower said the idea makes sense, especially given the researchers didn't tease out whether there was a difference between supportive children and children whose demands or lifestyles create stress or conflict for their aging parents.

"Some children are of great benefit and some children are really somewhat detrimental to your health," said Dombrower, of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care.

"In my practice I see a lot of children who are very good. And I see a lot of children who are more interested in making sure their inheritance is protected. With your friends, though, you choose your friends."

In the study, published Thursday in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Giles and her co-authors analysed data on 1,477 seniors aged 70 and older taking part in the Australian longitudinal study of aging.

For the purpose of this study, each individual was followed out for 10 years.

After performing statistical calculations aimed at ensuring differences in factors like income, physical or mental health and mobility didn't skew the findings, the researchers looked to see if there were survival differences between those with or without children, friends, relatives and a close confidant or confidants. A confidant could be a spouse, friend or family member.

The biggest difference - 20 per cent - was seen between those with friends and those who had few friends. There seemed to be a small benefit to having a confidant, but when it came to relatives and children, there were no significant survival differences between the haves and the have nots.

Giles, who is an epidemiologist in the university's department of rehabilitation and aged care, said another possible benefit of friendships is they may encourage healthier behaviour among seniors. Where a 76-year-old may bristle at taking advice from her daughter, she may agree to share a daily walk if encouraged by a friend.

In Giles's view, the take-away message of the study is simple.

"Keep friends. Make friends," she said.

"A wide social network is important so it's not only about children and relatives in later life. There's lots of positive messages for having friends and special people in your life who are not necessarily related by blood."