Published at 27 November 2023

The health benefits of friendship

Keeping your social networks healthy and flourishing as the years go by can help you stay healthy, too. And that’s good news for both your mind and body.

Dr. Michaela Hynie studies social inclusion among new immigrants and seniors. She is the interim director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University’s Faculty of Health. In her work, she explores the challenges facing these vulnerable groups. And there are many such challenges. Mental health, transportation, language and mobility issues can keep people from the social groups they need. And Hynie has seen the fallout this can cause.

“Various people can find themselves [socially isolated]. But some circumstances can make people more vulnerable than others,” she says. “Things like having a limited knowledge of English or French can be isolating. People with responsibility for providing care to family members can be less able to leave the house. And there are challenges around transportation. Without access to a car or good public transportation, you can’t get out to meet with people.”

So Hynie was encouraged by the results of a multi-year program by the Canadian Mental Health Association. The Minding Our Bodies project series promoted healthy eating and exercise to improve mental health.

“Yes, it was important to get some exercise and learn how to cook but it was the social network that was built around these activities that was the best outcome for them,” says Hynie. “It made them feel better.”

The participants, many of whom suffered from depression or conditions like schizophrenia, hadn’t just cooked and exercised. They had also benefited from making friends.

Benefits of social networks

Being sociable is good for you. It can reduce anxiety and depression and provide a lifeline when life gets tough.

But its benefits go beyond psychological ones. According to the U.S. National Institute on Aging: “People who are lonely experience emotional pain. Losing a sense of connection and community can change the way a person sees the world. Emotional pain can activate the same stress responses in the body as physical pain. When this goes on for a long time, it can lead to chronic inflammation and reduced immunity.”

Scientists now believe that inflammation in the body can contribute to disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease. And in turn, social relationships may be associated with lower levels of inflammation. Being sociable can also lower blood pressure. And it can lower the risk of illness and death.

“It lowers blood pressure, leads to better immune system function and better sleep,” says Dr. Verena Menec. Menec is a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba.

What’s also interesting is that when it comes to health benefits, not all social relationships are the same. A 2010 study from the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour found that the quality of these networks matters — and can influence behaviour.

“You’d think a person with a spouse really would be better off,” says Menec. But if the relationship with the spouse is not that good, the benefits are fewer, she says.

Menec says that one or two solid friendships — people who offer a hug and listen to your problems – can be enough for some people. But for most people, more is better. Having family members, friends and acquaintances who offer different social experiences — support, laughter, a sense of fun or caregiving — can meet a person’s social needs on many levels.

“You can gain different benefits from different people,” she says.

Interesting, too, are studies cited by the Brazilian Journal of Geriatrics and Gerontology. The journal’s review found that relationships with friends have more positive effects than family relationships. This could be because you choose your friends, not your relatives. You’re also more likely to spend time with family doing routine things, and spend time with friends having fun.

Keep your social networks alive

The worst thing you can do is socially isolate yourself and lose touch with old friends, says Menec. This can happen as you get older, or if you develop a chronic illness.

Many men in heterosexual relationships tend to have small social networks, Menec says. Some may really only have their wives. In their older years, they can be left with few social contacts, especially if they are widowed. “Men don’t maintain friendships as much as women do,” says Menec. “If the wife dies, the man is lost. It’s hard to start making contacts then.”

Hynie suggests that if older people feel discouraged from joining social groups, family members can help them overcome common barriers. They can encourage them, drive them, or look into affordable courses, workshops, exercise programs or clubs. Is transportation a barrier? Services such as Wheel Trans may be the answer. The Red Cross and CARP (formerly the Canadian Association for Retired Persons) also offer help.

Community outreach programs can help newcomers to Canada to build new networks. They enable new Canadians to socialize with people with shared interests and skills. They also offer integration strategies such as language courses and training.

Making new friends in retirement

Retirement comes with some added challenges for social networks. You lose the daily interaction with your co-workers that might have been the best thing about your job. By the time you reach your 60s and 70s, you may begin to lose friends to illness and death. And if you move to a new town or even a new neighbourhood, you may leave your network behind.

While you can’t replace your cherished old friends, you can make new ones. That could sound daunting if you’ve had the same friends for years, or if you tend to be reserved. But making new friends can be easier than you think. Some ideas:

  • Talk to your neighbours. They can be very friendly and, depending on where you’ve moved to, some could also be retired.
  • Check out the local library and seniors’ centre. They feature free or low-cost activities, such as history talks, arts and crafts classes, and exercise sessions.
  • Get involved at a place of worship. Whatever your spiritual tradition, you can meet friendly people who will be delighted to get to know you. (And there’s no shortage of volunteer opportunities at a church, mosque, synagogue, temple or gurdwara.)

Hynie says volunteering is an excellent way to meet people and feel a sense of purpose. “Volunteering has been shown to be very beneficial,” she says. “It provides meaningful ways of connecting to others, which makes people feel better about themselves.”