Scientific journals are bursting with evidence that having loved ones around changes the biochemistry of your brain. The more close friends you have, the greater the odds that you'll be healthy and live longer. 

lunch people

Experts are beginning to realise that we're hardwired for friendship. Back in the days when we lived in caves, being alone was perilous—no one was around to help to fend off marauding wolves or forage for roots and berries if you were sick.

Fast-forward to today: we're remarkably self-sufficient, yet our ancient responses haven't changed one bit. When you're alone for too long (and the definition of ‘too long’ is different for each of us), levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise, ratcheting up your odds for heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, muddled thinking and sleep problems.

Research even suggests that our brains register social isolation in the same way they register physical pain.

Yet keeping old friends close and building new connections is becoming a lost art. In one study that assessed the social habits of 1,467 women and men in 1985 and again in 2004, they found that the number of people with no close friends at all doubled—to 25 per cent.

Overall, the number of companions in whom study volunteers said they could really confide fell by a third.

 

Stay connected for a healthy heart

stay connected

That's sad news for your heart, according to the scientists who run the Framingham Heart Study. When they checked on 3,267 men, they found that those who were the most socially isolated had the highest levels of interleukin-6, an inflammatory compound linked to cardiovascular disease.

"Our analysis suggests that it may be good for the heart to be connected," says researcher Eric B. Loucks, PhD from the department of society, human development and health at the Harvard School of Public Health.

"In general, it seems to be good for health to have close friends and family, to be connected to community groups or religious organisations, and to have a close partner."

A spouse or romantic partner may buffer stress best. In one study, brain scans revealed that women had milder reactions to a stressful event (in this case, a mild electric shock) while holding their husband's hand than when they held a stranger's hand—or no one's hand.

Men who made love once or twice a week were 2.8 times less likely to have fatal heart attacks than men who made love less than once a month, report University of Bristol researchers, who tracked the health of 914 Welsh men over the course of five years.

Working on your relationship can make today sweeter and tomorrow healthier, too. Letting hostility and anger take centre stage is a recipe for trouble.

old friends

In a University of Utah study of 150 couples, those who deployed angry, mean-spirited verbal grenades had more heart-threatening atherosclerosis. The scientists uncovered the connection by videotaping the couples during a 6-minute conversation about a sore marital subject.

They also used a CAT scan to check their arteries for calcifications—an early sign of clogging. The surprising link: husbands had a 30 percent higher risk of severe hardening of the arteries when either spouse was dominant or controlling; wives’ risk rose 30 percent when either partner was hostile.

"People get heart disease for lots of reasons," says lead researcher Tim Smith, PhD, a professor of psychology at the university.

"If someone said, 'What's the most important thing I can do to protect my heart health?' my first answers would be, 'Don't smoke', 'Get exercise' and 'Eat a sensible diet'. But somewhere on the list would also be 'Pay attention to your relationships.'"

 

Pets count too

We're happy to report that four-legged friends are part of the equation for a long, happy, sociable life, too.

According to Dr Deborah Wells, a psychologist at Queen's University, Belfast, pet owners tend to be healthier than people who don't own pets. What's more, dog owners do better than cat lovers, with lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and fewer medical problems, whether minor or more serious conditions.

She speculates that ‘walking the dog’ may promote health through increased physical activity and also by enhancing social contact with other dog owners. Perhaps more important, dogs and other pets also seem to lower their owners’ stress levels—thus counteracting one of the major risk factors associated with ill-health.

 

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