Positive social connections are crucial to your health and wellbeing. You might have found that your friendship circles diminished as you've gotten older, but it's not too late to rekindle old friendships and even make some new ones.

The damage caused by lost friendships

Unless you're the rare type of person who truly thrives on going solo, spending too much time by yourself or having too few friends to confide in and socialise with can, over time, raise your odds of heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, muddled thinking and sleep problems.

Why does it affect health?

Loneliness raises levels of stress hormones in the bloodstream and, as a result, may play a role in firing up chronic inflammation – a risk factor in heart disease, diabetes and even some forms of cancer.

The biggest danger posed by having too few friends, it becomes a habit that could rob you of happiness in the future, when you may need it most. When researchers from Cardiff University analysed data from the 2002 Health Survey for England, they found that good social networks and contacts were strongly linked with better self-reported health, irrespective of health-affecting behaviour such as smoking, alcohol intake and fruit/vegetable consumption.

 

Making friends

 

According to the Australian Longitudinal Study of Ageing, which involved 1,477 people aged 70 or over, strong social networks lengthen survival among older people. Those who reported having most friends were 22 per cent less likely to die in the ensuing ten years than those with the least—and the protective effect of friendship outweighed even close contact with children and other relatives, which had little impact on survival rates. What's more, the benefit of having lots of friends was still evident even among people who had been through major changes such as the death of a spouse or close family members.

There's no magic number of friends, or number of times a week or a day to reach out by phone, email, old-fashioned letter or in person. But you do need at least one friend other than your spouse—something that 25 per cent of participants in one friendship study didn't have.

 

Can you undo the loneliness?

All you need to do is get past the mental blocks that have prevented you from reaching out. For some, that isn't easy—shyness, insecurity and low self-confidence can all get in the way of making new friends or reviving old ties. But all these can be overcome, and the benefits of doing so will be immediate.

More social interactions will have a less-than-subtle positive effect on your mood, making you much more happy, engaged and confident. And with these emotions, every aspect of your health will benefit.

 

Friendship plan:

Make a list

Elderly friends

With whom from your past would you most enjoy being closer? The answer could be friends, former co-workers, family members, even people you have met just once or twice but with whom you were highly impressed. Put them in order, and commit to a plan to contact them in a slow but steady sequence.

Use the Internet to get started

Today, email and social networks such as Facebook has become a wonderful way of reconnecting with long-lost friends and colleagues. Write a short note saying hello, confirming the address and asking if it's okay if you send a longer note. Who can turn down such an offer?

 

Work on your personal script

As you begin to make social connections new or old, you are going to be asked a lot of questions about you, your recent past and your plans for the future. Anticipate them and work on your answers ahead of time. This will greatly help your confidence and will help you to focus on giving out positive, appealing messages.

 

Turn a hobby into a social activity

Do you play the clarinet? Join the town band. Do you love the theatre? Volunteer to take tickets at local productions … or dare to audition for a role on stage. Have you a special skill or collection? Find others with the same interests.

 

Do lots of little interactions

For example, if you see a neighbour, walk over and chat for a few minutes. Linger after church services, classes or work and chat with acquaintances. Engage local shop owners in a little conversation. Talk to shoppers at the supermarket who are buying the same products as you are. You'll find that these little conversations are great fun and bolster your confidence.

 

Volunteer with a local organisation that performs good works in your community

With age, each of us should be more willing to donate our wisdom, time and skills to help our communities. The benefit will include great conversations and new-found relationships.

 

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