New research suggests that having lots of good friends in old age may be more important than close family ties in helping people live longer.
The findings reinforce those of other studies that have found that recreation, staying socially active and having a close social network in old age all help people stay healthier longer. The results were published Thursday in the British Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Researchers asked more than 1,500 Australians aged 70 and older how often they had personal and phone contact with their various social networks, including children, relatives, friends and confidants. They then matched that information with survival over 10 years.
"By differentiating between friends, children and other relatives, we were able to show that it is friends, rather than children or relatives, which confer most benefit to survival in later life," concluded the study's researchers from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia.
The scientists found that while frequent contact with children and relatives had little impact on survival rates over 10 years, a strong network of friends and confidants slightly improved the chances of survival. However, they did not evaluate the quality of the different interactions.
The study was also not able to determine whether the strong friendships made people live longer, or whether those who are more robust in old age tend to have stronger friendships anyway.
The researchers speculated that friends may influence health behaviors, such as smoking and drinking or seeking medical help for troubling symptoms. Friends may also have important effects on mood, self esteem and coping mechanisms in times of difficulty, they proposed.
Dr. Carlos Mendes de Leon, an expert at the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, who was not connected with the study, suggested that feeling connected to others may provide meaning and purpose that is not only essential to the human condition, but also to longevity. It may have a positive effect on the body in the same way that stress has a negative effect, he said.
EMMA ROSS, AP Medical Writer