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Just for Her


Friends for Health

When Monica, a mother of two in San Francisco, was having trouble with her husband, she spent a lot of time on the phone with her best friend, Joanne. "I don't know how I could have gotten through that time without her," says Monica. "She would just let me vent and cry and get it out of my system and then I was able to get through my day and be okay for my kids."

Monica's experience is a common one for many women who tend to turn to their trusted friends in times of need. And now scientists are beginning to recognize the health benefits of relationships such as these - not just emotionally and psychologically, but physiologically.

  • People with strong friendships are known to suffer less from depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness. Researchers at the University of Georgia and San Diego State University found that projected isolation and rejection alter brain functions and lead to problems in concentration, productivity and decision making.

  • In June 2001, a study by the Harvard Medical School concluded that social networks play an important role in enhancing women's health and quality of life. In fact, the study stated that not having at least one good friend is as detrimental to a woman's health as being overweight or a heavy smoker.

  • A study by James House, PhD, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, found that people who lived alone or had few friends were twice as likely to die during a 10 year period as people with more friends and family. In addition, 82 percent of people who survived a heart attack and were married or had friends survived for at least five years. However, only 50 percent of those with no spouse or close friends survived.

  • Research at the University of Chicago found that lonely people have blood pressure readings as much as 30 points higher than non-lonely people even when other factors such as depressive symptoms or perceived stress are taken into account.

  • According to Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist at Stanford University, women with advanced breast cancer live twice as long when they join a support group.

  • According to researchers at Ohio State University, having close friends helps keep your immune system strong during times of stress. Scientists are now considering the possibility that women's tendency to turn to their friends in times of stress (instead of isolating the way men tend to do) may help explain why women outlive men an average of seven years.

Scientists believe that our significant and negative response to social isolation and loneliness is evolutionary. Humans have always been a social animal and banding together in groups helped us survive and thrive as it helped us acquire food and defend ourselves against attacks. Women in particular have used social bonding as a form of protection and survival. While men responded to threats with the "flight or fight" response, we found safety in numbers and protected ourselves and our offspring with a method called "tend and befriend," according to Shelley E. Taylor, UCLA psychologist and author of The Tending Instinct. Taylor also believes that oxytocin - released during stress - drives us to bond because the estrogen in our bodies increases the effects of oxytocin. Oxytocin is sometimes called the "cuddle chemical" because it is released after childbirth to promote mother-child bonding. To read more about how women "tend and befriend" in response to stress, click here.

Social interaction also fosters self-care such as helping us stay on diets, maintain exercise regimens, and get regular health checkups through motivation, accountability and support.

If you're feeling a little isolated or lonely, get out there and get social! Volunteer, join an interest group or club (book club, fitness group, etc.) or reconnect with old friends you may have lost touch with. And it doesn't take that long to feel the benefits. Experts say that a sense of connection can develop after about a month of regular social interaction with as little as 15 to 30 minutes of contact a day.



Featured Sites:

Cord Blood Registry
March of Dimes
Susan G. Komen

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