May 18, 2005


Female 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 male anthropologists.

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 in longevity."

Women's reliance on their female friends--and the benefits they believe they get from those friendships--crosses the lines of ethnicity, income and age.

"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, Liza Melendez.

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 have.

"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.

Calming hormone

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 surged.

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."