The life-extending benefits of keeping your friends close and your family closer

There’s an old saying that comes from the Bible, “you are the company you keep.” Your parents probably used the saying as a warning in your teenage years. Indeed, the right (or wrong) kind of company during childhood and adolescence has a cascade effect throughout life.

But the company you keep later in life also affects you in many ways. And it turns out, the simple act of “joining” a group has many health benefits. In fact, one recent British study found that “joiners” who were members of sports clubs, religious organizations, or other groups experienced lower death rates during their first six years after retirement.

Another study from University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) found that belonging to a large social network is more important than having high-quality relationships during adolescence or old age. On the other hand, in your 30s through 50s, having high-quality relationships (rather than belonging to a large social network) is more important. And if you dislike your job and the people with whom you work during your 20s and 30s (imagine that), it may harm your health by your 40s.

Research also strongly links marriage to good health. On the flip side, divorced people are less healthy than those who remain married. This finding may stem from the emotional consequences of divorce, such as loneliness. It could also relate to lifestyle factors adopted by divorced adults. It may even indicate that a person’s ability to stay married means he or she has more healthy, hardy, and resilient character and emotional skills.

In the end, no marriage is perfect. Nor is life. And the ability to recognize that fact in a mature manner, rather than throw in the towel, may be a healthy trait.

Family matters more later in life

A recent study by researchers with University of Toronto’s School of Public Health and University of Chicago looked at the effect of family and friends in the lives of older adults.

For the study, researchers asked nearly 3,000 participants between the ages of 57 and 85 to list up to five of their closest “confidantes,” not including spouses, and provide details about their relationships.

On average, people reported having three close family members or friends. Evidence linked having more close family members in their social networks with lower death rates. In fact, men and women who felt “extremely close” to family members had just a six percent risk of death during the next five years. On the other hand, men and women who didn’t feel close to family members had more than double the rate of death (14 percent).

Health benefits of family bonds are “unconditional” 

Interestingly, having a lot of “close” friends did not seem to make a difference in health and longevity. So it seems keeping close relationships with family members in your life (whom you don’t choose) is more important than feeling closer to friends (whom you do choose).

Perhaps, in the end, family is more important because it is a deeper bond, something you’re born into and can’t easily reject. While you may feel burdened or stressed by family members at times, they still provide support. And your connections are not determined by fleeting emotions.

The same can be said of marriage. Even if you’re not in a “great” marriage, the marital bond itself is more important than having “perfection” in a spouse or marriage.

As Mama Corleone counsels son Michael in The Godfather, “you can never lose your family. Never.” Non mai pottrebe lasciare su famiglia. Of course, Michael then goes on to do his best — or, more accurately, his worst — to try to demonstrate that he can.

How do these findings apply to today’s world, with fewer adults getting married and fewer married, or otherwise affiliated, couples having children? And what will happen in China with its only-one-child generation grown up? This policy — called an “abomination” by some — has left the largest population in the world without any brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts or cousins, which has been the basic foundation of human social organization since the beginning of time.

In the end, the other Biblical advice to “go forth and multiply” may be the secret that will help you “live long and prosper.”


“Blood Is Thicker Than Water: Close Relationships With Family Members Increase Life Expectancy More Than Friends,” Medical Daily ( 8/22/2016