In a 10-year longevity study of people aged 70 and older, researchers at the Centre for Ageing Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia concluded that a network of good friends is more likely than close family relationships to increase longevity in older people.
The research report is based on the Australian Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ALSA).
How Was the Longevity Study Conducted?
ALSA, which began in Adelaide in 1992, used a series of interviews with nearly 1,500 older people to assess how much contact they had with their different social networks, including children, relatives, friends, and other confidantes. The group was monitored annually for four years and then less often for a decade.
The researchers also considered how economic, social, environmental and lifestyle factors affected the health and well-being of the seniors in the study. After controlling for those variables, the researchers were able to see the positive effect friendships have on longevity.
What Makes the Longevity Study Significant?
According to Lynn Giles, one of the four researchers who published the report, there is nothing new about evidence showing that social networks increase longevity, but ALSA went a few steps farther.
"What hasn't been done before is to break down which social networks might be most beneficial," Giles said in a statement published on the Flinders University web site.
"It looks as if friends are the most important in terms of survival."
What the Longevity Study Found
Based on results from the study, researchers learned:
- Close relationships with children and relatives had little effect on longevity rates for older people during the 10-year study.
- People with extensive networks of good friends and confidantes outlived those with the fewest friends by 22 percent.
- The positive effects of friendships on longevity continued throughout the decade, regardless of other profound life changes such as the death of a spouse or other close family members.
Giles said that neither the study nor the report suggests that family ties are unimportant to older people, only that they seem to have little effect on survival and longevity.
For example, she pointed out that another study showed that close relationships and frequent contact with family members were the most important factors in helping older seniors avoid disabilities and increase longevity.
Why Are Friendships So Powerful for Longevity?
While the study couldn’t say for certain why close friendships have such a dramatic effect on longevity, the authors of the report speculated that friends may encourage older people to take better care of themselves—by cutting down on smoking and drinking, for example, or seeking medical treatment earlier for symptoms that may indicate serious problems.
Friends may also help seniors get through difficult times in their lives, by offering coping mechanisms and having a positive effect on mood and self-esteem. Giles said the research didn’t distinguish between the effects of new and long-term friendships on longevity.
"The central message is that maintaining a sense of social embeddedness through friends and family appears pretty important for survival,” Giles said, “and it seems that non-kin relationships are particularly important."