A recent study about to be published in the journal Health Psychology, Who Needs a Friend? Marital Status Transitions and Physical Health Outcomes in Later Life, confirms what many in the psychological community have already suspected: Having close confidants in later life has a positive effect on our health.
A team of researchers at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania and Fordham University in New York followed 747 people, mostly older women, between 1992 and 2004. They examined the differences in physical health between those who had a close confidant and those who did not. The indicators of physical health studied included somatic depressive symptomatology, self-rated health, and number of sick days during the preceding year.
Significant findings included:
- Those who were widowed without a confidant spent an average of 12 days sick in bed vs. two days for those who had a close friend.
- Close friends cut down the depressive symptoms by about 40 percent, 6 symptoms per month for those with confidants versus 10 for those without.
Having family support from relatives did not show the same positive health benefits as did having friends.
“Greater ambivalence may be experienced about a family member who is a confidant than a friend who is a confidant, making the former emotionally more complex than the latter,” says Jamila Bookwala, the lead author of the study.
“And this may explain why having a family member to confide in resulted in no protective health benefits for those whose spouse died but having a friend to confide in did,” she adds.
Another reason friends provide more support than family members is that peers in the same life cycle stage often have had or anticipate shared experiences, and are more empathic and helpful than family members who are experiencing the same loss at a different age from a different perspective.
The study also suggests that widowhood may cause a decrease in one’s existing social networks if the couple socialized together with other twosomes.
“Family- or community-based efforts could implement novel means to facilitate contact between those who become widowed and their existing friend-confidants such as via increased video-based opportunities for social interaction and communication, the provision of prepaid telephone cards, or the availability of community volunteers to offer transportation for visits with these confidants,” says Bookwala.
Social media such as Facebook groups or message boards may also be resources to provide confidants for those who are physically isolated from or who lack close friends.
The take home message: Friendships don’t just nurture our hearts and mind; they also help our bodies through difficult times.
This article was originally featured on The Friendship Blog and has been featured here with permission from the author.
Amy Feld, LCSW has worked with children, teens, and their parents as a Child Psychologist for over 20 years. And is a contributor to The Friendship Blog.