Friends influence your happiness and habits as you age — whether you smoke, drink, work out, stay thin, or become obese — strong friendships become more powerful.
Who is likely to be happier and healthier at 90? A woman who moves across the country to live with her daughter and sees a grandchild every month, but rarely speaks to or see friends — or a woman who socializes with friends all the time, but sees family members mainly on holidays?
With any two real people, the answer depends on all kinds of factors. But most people assume that strong family ties are a bigger influence on well-being in old age than friendship. If you don’t have much family, you might worry that you’re likely to end up old and sick and alone. That assumption is wrong, according to a study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging. Actually, as you age, friendship is thicker than water.
The importance of friendship as you age
The study, designed by Michigan State University psychology professor William J. Chopik, PhD, looked at two sets of data — one drawn from people around the world at different ages, and another from older Americans.
The first data set came from more than 270,000 volunteers ages 15 to 99, from nearly a hundred countries. The volunteers answered questions about how highly they valued different kinds of relationships and how happy they were. From about age 65 on, valuing friendship highly turned out to make a bigger difference than it did when you were younger. Strong family ties were linked to happiness, but their importance stayed about the same over the life span.
In a separate analysis, researchers examined data from close to 7,500 American volunteers in their sixties and seventies. Getting support — be it from spouses, children, or friends — predicted greater well-being over an 8-year period, although more extended family didn’t seem to make much difference. This time, the questionnaires asked about “strain” within relationships. It turned out that people who experienced strain within friendships were more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and psychiatric problems. This was true even if they also had support from immediate family.
To add this all up, valuing your immediate family is good for your health and happiness at any age. But the older you become, the more important it is to have strong friendships.
The quality of friendships as you age
Other research has found what might seem to be a contradictory observation — we tend to socialize with fewer people as we age. But, as Chopik points out, we also invest more in a choice few. Those choice few help to keep us healthier, not just happier. “Friendship quality,” he writes, “often predicts health more so than the quality of other relationships.”
Some of us take friendship for granted — friends are supposed to be “easy,” while you work at family relations. But over the years, friendships run into trouble as well. You can decide to work through those trouble spots — ideally, getting closer — and move away from friendships that drag down your health. Don’t meet the old drinking buddies at the bar if you overdrink; see your girlfriend who eats a box of cookies at midnight for a morning walk instead.
As you get older, people move away, divorce, and die. You no longer may see work buddies if you retire. You may find yourself needing to make new friends. Community organizations and volunteer work may make all the difference. Invest in friendships that inspire you to stay healthy, and you have a good chance at being healthy — in fact, this is probably the best bet you can make, the older you get.
July 17, 2017
Janet O’Dell, RN