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Friendships and mental health

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What is the link between friendships and mental health?

Nurturing friendships is important throughout the life cycle. When we place value in our friendships, this positively affects our wellbeing – friendships and mental health are intrinsically linked.

The evidence has shown us time and time again that we are influenced by our social groups and our subcultures, but this may be particularly true for older adults. Our friends have immense impacts on our lifestyles and our health decisions.

Bringing meaning to life

When we hold on to friendships that have been deepened and strengthened over the years, we feel more meaning. Friends are the witnesses to our lives. They have seen us at our best and supported us during our worst.

Deep friendships hold us accountable to our values. True friendships are uplifting and supportive but they also challenge us to be better people. And it’s not just in terms of having an exercise partner or a person to help hold us accountable to our wellness goals—just the basic act of maintaining a friendship keeps us functioning at a higher level.

Friends may be more beneficial for our mental health than family

The old saying claims that “blood runs thicker than water,” implying that family always comes before friends. We love our family. We “come from” them and we create them. But for our health, friendships may be even more essential for positive outcomes.

The researcher working on a particular large-scale study looked at the influence of family versus friends on the reported health outcomes of older adults.1 This study suggests that as we get older we shed the less meaningful relationships and focus on the deeper ones. This isn’t as easily accomplished with family members. If we have a family member who we don’t have a lot of meaningful interactions with, we cannot simply abandon them. The idea is that friendships are a more dynamic and evolving relationship. Family cannot be changed or replaced. And however callous this may sound, friends can be.

It is particularly true with friendships that are deeper and less superficial. As we get older, we tend to become more reflective about our life’s path.

Therefore older adults with stronger friendships tend to also not be as static, per se. Whereas helping someone in your family may mean taking on the role of a caretaker, friendships are supportive by choice rather than out of obligation.

Friendships have a cognitive effect on our brains

Older adults who remain socially active also see statistically significant differences in their cognitive decline rates. In fact, one study saw the rate of cognitive decline reduced by 70% in older adults who remained engaged in friendship activities on a frequent basis.2

But if you’re not still in touch with your friends from primary school, have no fear. Get involved and active now! If you’re involved in your church, for example, join one of its groups—or form one. Check out what your town has to offer for older adults. Many communities have walking groups, reading clubs and other activities to suit varied interests.  

Age is just a number! Remember that your friendships don’t have to be within your age group. You could see whether there is a mentoring program with teenagers or young adults you can participate in or simply strike up conversations with those in a different age group. Check out your local library or schools to see whether there is a tutoring program or homework help you can assist with. These are places where others are also looking for connections with people and will be receptive to forming deeper relationships. Finally, if you have valued friendships already then treasure them, knowing that they don’t just bring you joy, but they are benefitting you for a mental health perspective too.

  1. Chopik, William J. “Associations among Relational Values, Support, Health, and Well-Being across the Adult Lifespan.” The Health and Retirement Study—The National Institute on Aging,vol. 24, no. 2, Apr. 2017, pp. 408–422, doi:10.1111/pere.12187 []
  2. James, Bryan D., et al. “Late-Life Social Activity and Cognitive Decline in Old Age.” Journal of the InternationalNeuropsychological Society, vol. 17, no. 6, Nov. 2011, pp. 998–1005, doi:10.1017/s1355617711000531 []