4 surprising health benefits of talking to your best friend
Like a doctor or personal trainer, your best friend could help you live longer.
Your BFFs. Your besties. Your ride or dies. Whatever you call your best friends, you already know that they add meaning to your life. What you may not realize is that they can actually add years to your life, too. Forming a close connection with someone can help you cope with tough times, give you a sense of purpose and even fight illness. (We can help you fight illness too: Download the Optum perks app to access discounts on your prescription medications.)
Friendship is more than an abstraction. In a study from UCLA, researchers used brain scans to see how people react to video clips. Turns out, close friends demonstrated more similar brain patterns. Best friends were most alike, while people once removed (friends of friends) or twice removed (friends of friends of friends) showed increasingly more variation.
Such close relationships support mental and physical health in several ways. If you need an excuse to book a catch-up session right now, here are 4 ways your best friend can help keep you healthy.
Your best friend reduces your stress
Spending time with someone you’re close to works as an antidote to the fight-or-flight response. That’s the ancient system your body uses to keep you alert in dangerous situations, such as hunting in the jungle at night.
“Interacting with a close, trusted friend signals safety in our brains,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD. She’s a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University. “Conversely, if we’re alone or with someone we don’t trust, we need to be alert, because we’ll have to deal with any challenges on our own.”
That heightened state of fight-or-flight alertness is the root of stress. It can raise your heart rate and blood pressure and cause inflammation, Holt-Lunstad says. Over time, it can lead to health issues such as headaches, digestive problems, anxiety and trouble sleeping. According to the Cleveland Clinic, stress can directly raise your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Fortunately, friendships offer 2 great stress busters: conversation and laughter. UCLA research shows that when we put our feelings into words, we reduce activity in the amygdala. That’s the part of the brain that controls emotions, including fear and anxiety. Laughter, meanwhile, is truly a great medicine. One study found that adults 65 and older who laughed every day had a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.
The explanation may be hormonal. Healthy interaction with friends releases oxytocin, the same chemical that helps mothers and babies bond. That in turns triggers the secretion of the “happy” hormone serotonin, according to a paper by researchers from Duke University.
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Your best friend improves your immune system
Hopefully by now you’ve received your COVID-19 vaccine. What you might not realize is that close friendships can make the shot more effective. Social interaction can also improve your immune response.
Decades of studies back this up. And according to a recent paper from the Ohio State University College of Medicine, stress, depression, loneliness and poor health habits can make a vaccine less effective. So your friends not only help you feel less isolated and lonely but also (in most cases) can help support your immunity.
The key to unlocking this benefit is that your friendships should be mostly positive and supportive, Holt-Lunstad says. A friend who is insensitive or unreliable might not have the same effect. Conflict in a relationship can potentially increase stress rather than reduce it.
There’s one more important way friends help you avoid illness: They exert positive social pressure. You’re more likely to hit the gym or go for a walk if you’re meeting up with a friend. You’re also more likely to stick to a healthy routine if you have social events on the calendar.
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Your best friend keeps your brain sharp
You and your BFF may have joked that you’ll still be laughing together when it’s time to move into the retirement home. That kind of camaraderie could keep your brain healthy.
Research shows that loneliness contributes to dementia. In a study on this subject published in the journal JAMA, scientists looked at 823 people. Among those who were lonely, the risk of Alzheimer’s or dementia was more than double. But close relationships keep loneliness at bay.
Socializing can be good for your brain in the short-term too. Research at the University of Michigan found that social interactions were comparable to doing a crossword. The activities led to similar improvements in working memory and the ability to handle distractions.
Your best friend helps you live well into old age
As long as your friendship is more Monica and Rachel (from the TV show Friends) than the duo in the film Thelma and Louise, spending time with your best friend can actually help you live longer. Holt-Lunstad is one of the authors of an analysis of several studies that found that people with stronger social relationships cut their risk of an early death in half. The results held true across all genders, ages and nationalities. The analysis also revealed that loneliness and isolation have as much impact on lifespan as obesity or physical inactivity.
By some measures, that makes your time with friends as valuable as the time you spend in the gym or preparing healthy meals. That sounds like an unbeatable reason to call your bestie right now.
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Close friends have similar brain patterns: Nature Communications (2010). “Similar neural responses predict friendship.”
Conversation reduces amygdala activity: Psychological Science (2007). “Putting Feelings Into Words.”
Laughter could reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke: Journal of Epidemiology (2016). “Laughter Is the Best Medicine? A Cross-Sectional Study of Cardiovascular Disease Among Older Japanese Adults.”
Healthy interaction triggers oxytocin and serotonin: Annals of New York Academy of Sciences (2014). "Neuropathology of Friendship."
Mental health predicts the effectiveness of vaccines: Perspectives on Psychological Science (2021). “Psychological and Behavioral Predictors of Vaccine Efficacy: Considerations for COVID-19.”
Alzheimer’s risk more than doubles for lonely people: Journal of the American Medical Association (2007). “Loneliness and Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease.”
Social interaction improves executive brain function: Social Psychology and Personality Science (2010). “Friends (and Sometimes Enemies) With Cognitive Benefits: What Types of Social Interactions Boost Executive Functioning?”
Strong relationships reduce the risk of death: American Psychologist (2017). “Advancing Social Connection as a Public Health Priority in the United States.”