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Successful Aging: The importance of friendships in a long healthy life

From L-R: Helen Dennis, Laura McKirdy, Suzanne Franks. (Photo courtesy of Helen Dennis)

Dear readers,

I rarely discuss my own personal experiences for this column. This week is different. Here’s the story and it’s about friends.

Last year around this time, I met for a couple of days with two women with whom I went to college. We have known each other since we were freshmen – 62 years. (You do the math.). The three of us started out as young single women. As widows, we once again are three single women and just a bit older.

We care about the world around us, wanting to make a difference. One friend who was the founder and principal of a school for the deaf started a foundation to test and care for babies with a hearing loss. The other who was head of communications for a real estate investment management company is involved in expanding cultural activities and taking classes in New York. Yours truly continues to advocate successful aging by writing, teaching, speaking and designing special projects. Each of us wants to be a legacy gift to our grandchildren as a positive influencer.

So, what was there to talk about for three days? We shared information about adult children and grandchildren, reviewed the current state of affairs and discussed movies, books, fitness, theater and the best lotions to help us look our best.

Since one of our friends recently decided to abandon hair color and now has radiant white hair, we also discussed the pros and cons of hair coloring. At the same time, we tried to understand why she spends 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening applying various potions to her face. She looks great so maybe that’s her secret. My other friend and I allocate about five minutes to the same task.

What struck us in our time together was the discovery that friendship has scientific implications. This was based on a book by Lydia Denworth, a science journalist and author of “Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond” (W. W. Norton & Company, 2020). Based on an interview of Denworth in the Wall Street Journal, we became aware that not only are friendships satisfying and enjoyable but also a key to survival.

Contrary to common assumptions, longevity for non-human primates like monkeys and baboons does not depend on reproductive success or the number of babies and the number who survived. Rather biologists found health and longevity were based primarily on the strength of social bonds and how well and regularly an individual animal interacted with other animals.

Similarly, for us humans, friendships were reported to affect our physical health, improve our cardiovascular functions, sleep and immune system, according to Denworth. She writes in her book, “friendship does have survival value – more socially integrated people live longer than those who are less well connected.” We think chatting with a friend over coffee is just a “feel good” exercise. It’s more than that. A Harvard study of men from ages 20 to 80 found that the single best predictor of health and happiness was not wealth or professional success. It was relationships at age 50.

Biologists have defined the following characteristics of friendship that seemed to describe our brief time together.

Positivity. We shared our positive outlook on life while acknowledging the current uncertain political environment and the challenges facing our society. We each saw a positive future for ourselves.

Feeling good. Indeed, with lots of laughs, good food, watching television in our pajamas, walking in the sun together, visiting a museum and knowing that each of us truly cares about and understands one another was a “feel great” experience.

Long-lasting and stable. Well, 62 years of friendship meets that test despite the distance of three thousand miles between me and my two friends.

Reciprocity. That was clear in our conversations with a give and take in all of our chatter. We continued to find one another interesting and interested regardless of the topic.

Cooperation. That was a given: Providing pick-ups from the airport, offering workout clothes (which I’d forgot), sharing the tasks of cleaning up the kitchen and deciding on activities of the day.

We also acknowledged the realities of our life stage, such as the consequences of falling, illness and potential dependency. We all are committed to fitness and share values: Having a sense of purpose, feeling intellectually stimulated, continuing to grow and being engaged with what is fun, interesting and rewarding. One last bonding element was the implicit respect for one another – whether it is an opinion or sharing family dynamics.

We considered ourselves fortunate, treasuring our time together and looking forward to next year.

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