May 18, 2005
friendships have positive effect on health
A story released by the Chicago Tribune
reports that women are keepers of each other's secrets, boosters of one
another's wavering confidence, co-conspirators in life's adventures.
Through laughter, tears and an inexhaustible river of talk, they keep
each other well, and make each other better.
Across species and throughout human cultures, females have banded
together for protection and mutual support. They have groomed each
other, tended each other's young, nursed each other in illness and
engaged in the kind of aimless sociability that has generally mystified
But the power of girlfriends is beginning to yield its secrets to
science. For women, friendship not only rules, it protects. It buffers
the hardships of life's transitions, it lowers blood pressure, boosts
immunity and promotes healing. It may help explain one of medical
science's most enduring mysteries: why women, on average, have lower
rates of heart disease and longer life expectancies than men.
"Women are much more social in the way they cope with stress," says
Shelley E. Taylor, author of "The Tending Instinct" (Owl Books) and a
social neuroscientist at UCLA. "Men are more likely to deal with stress
with a 'fight or flight' reaction--with aggression or withdrawal." But
aggression and withdrawal take a physiological toll, and friendship
brings comfort that mitigates the ill effects of stress, Taylor says.
That difference alone, she adds, "contributes to the gender difference
Women's reliance on their female friends--and the benefits they believe
they get from those friendships--crosses the lines of ethnicity, income
"There's a sense of well-being with Liza; I just feel stronger--more
alive--when I talk to her," Susie Gonzalez, 27, says of her best friend,
To be sure, friendships--the feeling of being connected to a supportive
network--profoundly affect the health of both genders, according to
researchers. Men and women who report loneliness die earlier, get sick
more often and weather transitions with greater physical wear and tear
than those who say they have a support network of friends or family.
"Loneliness is simply one of the principal causes of premature death in
this country," says Dr. James J. Lynch, a Maryland-based author and
psychologist who works with cardiac rehabilitation patients.
Men rely heavily on their marriages--on their wives, specifically--to
ward off the corrosive health effects of loneliness. Married men are
markedly healthier and live longer than bachelors or widowers.
Married women, by contrast, are only slightly better off than unmarried
women or widows when it comes to health and social support. Researchers
attribute the difference to women's greater reliance on friendships
outside of marriage. These friendships make women's support networks
broader, deeper and more resilient than the webs of support that men
"When a romantic relationship ends, a woman still has other sources of
intimacy--her friends--and that provides her with another source of
support," says Beverley Fehr of the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba,
author of a scholarly study titled "Friendship Processes."
When a man loses his primary female partner, "he's in trouble," says
Ohio State University psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser.
Increasingly, researchers think that the hormone oxytocin is, for women
especially, the elixir of friendship--and, by extension, of health.
Present in men and women, oxytocin levels spike in females following
childbirth and when nursing. But levels also increase at times of
isolation and stress. And when the hormone interacts with estrogen,
studies have shown, it impels females to seek the company of others.
"We call it a `social thermostat' that keeps track of how well
[females'] social supports are going," Taylor says. When the thermostat
reads too low, females tend to reach out to others. When they reach out
to others, oxytocin levels rise again, and with that prolonged exposure
comes a distinctive "calming, warm" effect, Taylor says. "We don't see
the same mechanisms in men."
Stacy Anderson, a 36-year-old Culver City mother of two young children,
recognizes oxytocin's effects. That, she says, must be the chemical that
delivers that "wash of love" she feels when she sits down to breast-feed
her baby. When she and her friend and fellow mother Terese Jungle leave
the kids with husbands and take themselves out for an evening, there's a
special warmth as well, she says.
The women talk about poetry and architecture and jewelry, and mimic the
British-accented commentary of television naturalists while they
people-watch. "We laugh a lot," Anderson says. "It's almost romantic."
By nudging women to build networks of support, oxytocin has a powerful
indirect effect on their health. At least 22 studies have shown that
having social support decreases the heart-racing,
blood-pressure-boosting responses that humans and other social animals
have to stress and the hormones it sends surging.
Researchers at Ohio State University and Carnegie Mellon University have
shown that people who report strong social supports have more robust
immune systems and are less likely to succumb to infectious disease.
The health benefits of friendship are not news to Irene Miller, 59, of
Woodland Hills, Calif. With her friend of 38 years, Anita Kienle, never
far from reach, Miller has weathered the dissolution of her first
marriage, depression and a malfunctioning thyroid gland. She, in turn,
helped nurse Kienle, now 63, through breast cancer a decade ago. "I know
this friendship has gotten me better from psychological and physical
illness," she says.
But are women's friendships uniquely health-promoting? Do women glean
benefits from their women friends that could not be gotten from
boyfriends or husbands?
Among researchers, the answer is a definite maybe. Girlfriends, however,
are unanimous: The answer is yes.
Friends share `small secrets'
"We have small secrets," said Chicagoan Jodi Schulman, 27, about her
friend Ryan Settner, also 27, whom she has known since high school. "You
think, `Should I tell my husband? Is he going to get upset?' So, I call
her and tell her."
Schulman and Settner leaned on each other after the death of another
friend, Lisa Klitzky, from a rare cancer two years ago. They created a
foundation in her memory, and have raised $100,000 toward research.
"Ryan is one of those people I don't have to worry about making
judgments or if I'm going to say the right thing to her. She's going to
be there and she's going to listen," Schulman said.
In fact, for women, there is some evidence that a male partner, in times
of stress, can make things worse. In a study published in the journal
Psychosomatic Medicine in 1995, German researchers found that when
subjects were given a stressful task--in this case, preparing a speech
for delivery in front of an audience--men who were joined by their
female partner for the preparation period showed much lower stress
levels than those who had no support. When women preparing their
speeches were joined by their male partners, their stress hormones
Taylor of UCLA surmises that findings such as this may reflect a major
difference between the way men and women give support. Men's support to
a friend or partner tends to take the form of advice, she says. Women's
support more frequently comes in vaguer forms of encouragement,
validation and acceptance. That, in turn, may let a woman work out her
own solution to a problem, with less pressure to satisfy the
expectations of her adviser.
Kiecolt-Glaser adds that differences in the ways that men and women
converse may result in large differences in their social supports.
On meeting a friend, a man may open a conversation with a comment on
sports. By contrast, a woman is more likely to spill a personal
problem--`I'm having a tough time on my job' or `my kids are driving me
crazy'--right from the start.
"It's the self-disclosure aspect of the conversation that matters" to
women--and which leads to supportive comments and validation from a
friend, says Kiecolt-Glaser. "To say `what a pity about the Sox' is not
exactly a way to evoke warm support from others," she says.
Researchers play catch-up
For the last decade, says Taylor, researchers have been scrambling to
overcome decades of neglect in studying the factors that uniquely affect
women's health. Rigorous study of women's friendships remains in its
infancy. Scientists, she adds, need a "wakeup call" to take it further.
"This is one of those areas that is relegated to nice stories and pretty
prose rather than hard science," Taylor says. "What this body of
evidence suggests is that there's an important biological role for
women's friendships that scientists have largely ignored."