Friends, not family, keep the brain healthy
“There is nothing on this earth more prized than true friendship” - Thomas Aquinas.
When it comes to maintaining health and facing life’s challenges, friendship can truly be a blessing. Strong social ties - through friends, family and community groups, can preserve our brain health as we age, while social isolation may be a key risk factor for cognitive decline in the elderly.
Here are some of the reasons why good friends help keep the brain healthy.
1. Prepare you for the challenges ahead
Tough tasks don’t look so difficult when you’re standing next to your friends, according to Professor Dennis Proffitt of the University of Virginia and his research team. Proffitt had 34 students stand at the base of a steep hill, and assess its steepness. Those who stood next to their friends gave the lowest estimates, while those without friends nearby gave the highest estimates. With friends nearby, the challenges ahead don’t look so tough. And we all know that overcoming obstacles is important for self development.
2. Live longer
Positive friendships are associated with longevity. A 10 year Australian study found people with solid groups of friends were 22% more likely to live longer than individuals with fewer friends. Surprisingly, the researchers also found family and children to have no influence on the participant’s longevity.
It has been proposed leading an intellectually stimulating life may foster cognitive vitality. Friends often have common interests, stimulating mental engagement and encouraging quick thinking - all helping to keep the brain active.
And when sick - friends are especially important. In a study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer, those with close friends were nearly 4 times less likely to die from their illness, than those without close friends. The proximity and amount of contact the participants had with their friends was not associated with survival - it was just important to know that they were there. This finding emphasises the importance of mind over matter - survival is heavily influenced by wanting to live. Friends can help us to stay positive and see the next day.
3. Staying fit
Exercise is extremely beneficial for the brain, especially aerobic exercise. According to Professor Tomporowski of the University of Georgia, even briefly exercising for 20 minutes facilitates information processing and memory functions.
What’s more, if you have fit friends, you are more likely to stay fit too. Yale University’s Professor Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler in 2007 published a groundbreaking study documenting a 60% increased risk of individuals becoming obese if their friends were severely overweight too. The researchers found that same-sex friends had a larger influence on weight gain than friends or spouses of the opposite sex. So, if your friends follow a healthy lifestyle full of exercise and good nutrition, their positive lifestyle habits will most likely rub off on you too. Coordinate exercise plans with morning walks or forming a soccer team. Physical fitness if great for the brain - improving cognition, decreasing the risk of developing mental health problems, and so much more.
Modern life is hectic, and friends who help us to sit still and unwind are invaluable - for our long term cognition and career goals. A large Swedish study assessed the stress levels of 13,395 Swedish employees, and found strong social connections acted as a buffer against future cognitive complaints. These cognitive complaints included problems with concentration, memory, decision-making and thinking, all which are relatively common in the modern workforce. Friends help protect us against insomnia and burnout - giving us time-out from our professional lives, to rebalance and be fresh for tomorrow.
Friends for a better life
We often focus on finding the perfect partner and raising children, but the research shows that our brains really do benefit from having strong friendships. “People with stronger friendship networks feel like there is someone they can turn to,” said Professor Karen Roberto of Virginia Tech. “Friendship is an undervalued resource. The consistent message of these studies is that friends make your life better.”