Friday, April 4, 2014

The Power of Friendship

When we think of health, we think of overcoming disease. We like to read dramatic stories where great medical warriors discover the cure for this or that disease.

Thus, we overlook Benjamin Franklin’s adage: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

I have often pointed out that, Prozac notwithstanding, one of the great recent discoveries in psychiatry is the beneficial effect of exercise.

We are thrilled by the surgeons who perform heart transplants and coronary bypasses, but, if you want to diminish the chance that you might contract heart disease, you would do well to do more exercise. As recently as two days ago Gretchen Reynolds wrote this in the New York Times:

Having unhealthy cholesterol numbers, elevated blood pressure or an expanding waistline substantially increases your chances of developing heart disease. But an encouraging new study finds that exercise may slash that risk, even if your other risk factors stay high.

Obviously, there are caveats, but it is worthwhile noting that we ourselves can do more to prevent illness. Aside from the fact that our good habits will lower the nation’s medical bill, exercise will greatly improve your quality of life.

Now, medical research has discovered another great way to prevent disease and degeneration: friends. More specifically, they want you to have many friends. As the saying goes, there’s strength in the number of friends you have.

If you want to improve both your mental and physical health, you should make a new friend, or two. And yes, make every effort to keep your friends.

This is not quite the same as saying that true love will solve all of your problems. One hopes that everyone will find true love, but, when it comes to improving your health, friendship is better than mad, passionate love. It's probably even better than transference love.

Of course, if you want true love to last, you would do well to socialize it. If your love relationship is your only relationship, it will not survive the stress.

For better or worse, the story about friendship comes to us from O Magazine, that is, from Oprah Winfrey’s magazine.

Some will be inclined to dismiss the story because of the source, but the research was done by highly reputable scientists.

O Magazine reports, for example, that people who have more friends are far less likely to come down with colds.

It’s relatively easy to quantify. Expose a number of people to rhinovirus and see who comes down with a cold. Those who had more social connections were four times less likely to contract a cold. The number is not within the margin of error.

Having more friends brings many other benefits. It lowers your stress and your blood pressure. It helps you to sleep better.

Better yet, those who have more friends demonstrate better cognitive functioning:

Socializing can give your mind a workout: According to one study, the more frequently people interacted with others, the higher they scored on cognitive tests. Plus, research in the American Journal of Public Health found that among older women, those who had daily contact with friends saw their risk of developing dementia reduced by 43 percent compared with those who had contact less than once a week. This may be because social interaction helps form new synaptic connections, staving off cognitive decline.

In our rational/scientific age, people believe that they are preventing illness by taking one or many kinds of nutritional supplements. I have no opinion on the practice, but I would note that we are far too prone to believe that biochemistry will solve all problems.

If we accept that we are social beings and not merely biological organisms, we should also put in some extra time making and maintaining friendships.

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