The benefits of friendships can last for decades, and I’ve got to tell you, some of the beneficial side effects are truly amazing. As it turns out, that neighborhood kid you used to chase around the park may actually have an impact on your health decades down the line. The latest research provides even more reason to encourage your children to develop tight-knit relationships with their peers.
The Benefits of Friendships as Children
A study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that the more time you spent with your friends as a child, the more likely you are to have a lower body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure as an adult.
In many previous studies, researchers identified an association between the strength of adults’ social support and health-related outcomes. Cundiff and Matthews wondered whether this association would be evident earlier in life.
So, the researchers examined data from 267 boys, most of whom were black (about 56 percent) or white (about 41 percent), in a well-controlled longitudinal study.
The participants’ parents recorded the amount of time their children spent with friends during an average week, starting when the boys were about 6 years old and continuing on through age 16. The study also included data on other factors, including extraversion and hostility during childhood, physical health in both childhood and adulthood, socioeconomic status in childhood, social integration in adulthood, and so on.
The boys who spent more time with their friends in childhood (according to reports by their parents) had healthier blood pressures and BMIs at age 32. This association could not be accounted for by the other potential factors, including physical health in childhood and social integration in adulthood. No disparities in race were found.
5 Other Science-Backed Health Benefits of Friendships
Healthy relationships with your friends not only help keep your blood pressure and weight under control, close friends also:
1. Benefit Mental Health
Do you often feel lighter, stress-free and happier after spending an afternoon with your close friends? Studies show that perceived support benefits mental health, helping to lower your risk of depression and anxiety. (1) This means that friendship benefits your health when you know it’s there, and you have a close relationship you feel supported by.
2. Promote a Healthy Heart
One study of Swedish middle-aged men analyzed how emotional support from very close people (referred to as “attachment”) and support provided by an extended network (referred to as “social integration”) affect the risk of coronary heart disease. Researchers found that both “attachment” and “social integration” were lower in men diagnosed with coronary heart disease. According to the study, smoking and a lack of social support were the two leading risk factors for coronary heart disease amongst the group of participants. (2) That makes sense, given research also links loneliness to more deaths than obesity.
3. Help Ward Off Diabetes
In a study of nearly 3,000 middle-aged or elderly people, researchers found that people with larger social networks (made up of 10 to 12 people) were less likely to develop type 2 diabetes compared to people with a smaller social network (made up of seven to eight friends). Subtracting one network member correlated to a 5 percent to 12 percent higher risk of diabetes, according to the study.
Researchers believe larger social networks may help people improve their lifestyle, eat healthier foods and be more physically active, which are important steps for preventing type 2 diabetes. This disease is also linked to a sedentary lifestyle and being overweight. (3)
4. May Lower Your Dementia Risk
Not all friendships are created equal, however. Research suggests people who feel lonely have an increased risk of developing dementia — independent of whether or not they are married or have social support. This means if you feel lonely even within your tight-knit group of friends, your friend circle may not help lower your risk of dementia. Among participants who said they felt lonely at the start of the study, 13.4 percent developed dementia over the next three years. On the other hand, 5.7 percent of participants who did not report lonely feelings developed dementia. (4)
Researchers have yet to come up with a clear reason for this correlation. They hypothesize that “feelings of loneliness are a reaction to diminished thinking skills,” or that “those who are lonely experience a lack of stimulation, and this affects the brain systems involved in thinking.” (5)
5. Help You Live Longer
One study found older adults with the strongest network of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the span of the study than those with the weakest network.
Researchers say friends may have a positive influence on negative behaviors like smoking and drinking, while also help to boost mood and self-esteem, allowing you to better cope with difficult situations. (6)
- One study found the more time you spent with your friends as a child, the more likely you are to have a lower BMI and blood pressure as an adult.
- Aside from helping maintain healthy blood pressure and body mass index, research also shows that friendship benefits your mental and heart health, lowers your risk of type 2 diabetes and dementia and may even help you live longer.