How friends help you live longer

Photo by Joseph Pearson on

Photo by Joseph Pearson on

The secret of longevity may not lie in a special supplement, through particular exercise programs or dietary regimes. Whilst all these contribute to physical health, there is another factor that can impact behavioural, psychological and physiological health. Friendship.

The importance of social networks
A longitudinal study into the impact of social networks on the survival of older people, showed the value of social networks as significant in lengthening their survival. Interestingly, the impact of networks of friends and confidants and networks with children and relatives differed. Friends and confidants had protective effects against mortality whereas the family networks were not considered significant.

You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family … 
~ Harper Lee

How do we make sense of this? It is suggested that discretionary relationships (friends and confidants) were more impactful that those where there is less choice (family). Furthermore, the research suggests that with age, one’s social choices become more selective.

The study showed that those with strong social ties had a 50% better chance of survival than those without them. Whilst the subjects of this research were aging Australians, I think the impact of the findings are worth considering at any age. In fact, with the extent to which we work and interact with others online, we are perhaps in greater danger of not forming the same sorts of friendship networks to support longevity.

The importance of choice
Social networks that we choose to be part of, provide opportunities for psychosocial mechanisms to have effect. These include:

  • social support
  • social influence
  • social engagement
  • interpersonal contact
  • access to financial and healthcare resources
    (Giles, Glonek, Luczcz & Andrews, 2015)

Their effects are behavioural, psychological and physiological. For example, friends encourage health-seeking behaviour which can impact their survival. It is suggested that through social engagement with friends, social roles are reinforced. The value of interactions with friends that stem from choice have many benefits. These can include reduced depression, confidence, self-esteem and sense of personal control (Giles et al, 2005).

What does it mean to be a friend?
There are many kinds of friends. There are probably also degrees of friendship. So – how do we ascertain what it means to be a friend? How many true friends can you have?

The strong bond of friendship is not always a balanced equation; friendship is not always about giving and taking in equal shares. Instead, friendship is grounded in a feeling that you know exactly who will be there for you when you need something, no matter what or when.
~ Simon Sinek

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has studied friendships. He focused on emotional closeness between individuals. From this, he developed the Dunbar layers – or the concept of layers of friendship. He predicted that most humans can have a maximum of 150 contacts in their social sphere.

The layers of friendship
The 150 contacts are layered according to the strength of emotional ties. Dunbar suggested the layers as follows:

  • the closest layer, best friends – up to five people
  • the next layer, people you have an affinity with – an additional 10
  • the one beyond that, people with common interests – an extra 35, and
  • the final group, those we are acquainted with – another 100
    (arXiv, 2016)

Nurturing friendship for the long haul
Maintaining friendships requires effort. One reason you cannot have too many close friends in Dunbar’s first layer – is the time and effort and involved in maintaining the relationships (Haden, 2017).

The only way to have a friend is to be one. 
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am not saying friendship is a burden, but it does require investment. With the mobility of people (I am a case in point), it is harder to do this. The world of social media helps that somewhat – but we still need to ensure that we have quality interactions with those chosen few of really good friends. And – our lives may depend on it!

What do you think about the value of friendship?


  1. Emerging Technology from the arXiv. 2016. Your brain limits you to just 5 BFFs in MIT Technology Review, 29 April 2016.
  2. Giles, Lynne C., Glonek, Gary F. V., Luczcz, Mary A., & Andrews Gary R. 2005. Effect of social networks on 10 year survival in very old Australians: the Australian longitudinal study of aging in Journal of Epidemiol Community Health 59:574–579
  3. Haden, Jeff. 2017. This Study of 300,000 People Reveals the 1 Secret to Living a Longer, Healthier Life in, 17 October 2017

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