Friends are the secret ingredient that keep you healthier for longer

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Pat Vale, left, and Jenny White, right, who met at Glengara Retirement Village 12 years ago, have become great friends.

Think of the habits that contribute to a longer, healthier life and plenty will come to mind. Binning cigarettes, working out regularly and eating healthy are likely to be top of the pile.

But there are two behaviours that can also increase your health and your longevity, yet require little of the effort of diet and exercise.

Those are friendship and a sense of community.

Countless studies have underlined how having mates contributes to good physical and mental health. The renowned Mayo Clinic reported just last year on the benefits of buddies.

Having friends boosts happiness, reduces stress, improves self-confidence and helps you remain resilient in the face of life’s hurdles such as divorce, unemployment, serious illness and bereavement, the clinic said.

“Adults with strong social support have a reduced risk of many significant health problems, including depression, high blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index,” it added.

But it’s not just having friends that matters – maintaining social or community connections is also important to good health in older age. These connections can range from greeting local shopkeepers to regularly seeing the same bank teller or having an occasional chat with neighbours.

Not having these community connections has been directly linked with physical health issues including high blood pressure and heart disease, research published in 2011 by Health Psychology found.

And maintaining friendships and community connections don’t just improve your health, they help you live longer too, studies have found.

One well-known piece of research, published in 2015, found that loneliness and social isolation are as dangerous to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or suffering alcoholism.

Having friends is nearly twice as beneficial as physical activity in terms of longevity, the researchers from Brigham Young University in the US reported.

These effects could come from the fact that having friends helps us cope with stress, encourages healthier behaviours and discourages risk-taking, they suggested.

These findings are particularly important to remember in your senior years, because that’s when people are more likely to lose friends or become socially isolated.

Psychologist and aged care specialist Julie Bajic Smith puts the difficulty of maintaining friends and social networks in the later years of life down to both physical and mental factors.

“Physically, it can be more challenging (and expensive) to get out if we stop driving and need to rely on public transport or taxi,” she told Starts at 60.  “And if we are experiencing increased hearing loss and reduced vision, it can be more difficult to maintain phone and internet contact. 

“Emotionally, we may feel that our friends and family are constantly busy and we do not want to reach out to them as we do not have anything new to report.” 

Mental health group Beyond Blue has warned that social isolation is a growing problem for older Aussies, in part because aged care models are increasingly designed to help people stay in their own homes longer.

Kerrie Storey, the care and services development manager at retirement village provider RetireAustralia, says that in her 15 years of as a nurse in the home care sector, she saw many socially isolated older Australians.

That’s why moving from your own home into a retirement community can be beneficial, she said. She likened the move to when your children started school and you befriended fellow parents.

“When you move into an environment with other like-minded people who’re at a similar life stage, and there are some organised activities that you can attend together, it starts to open up avenues to building friendships,” Storey explained.

The importance of group social activities is underlined by research from the University of Queensland that found these kinds of activities provided benefits that were additional to those obtained from maintaining friendship and community ties.

“There is evidence that the number of groups that a person is a member of is a unique predictor of self-esteem, resilience and mental health,” Tegan Cruwys, one of the researchers from the university’s School of Psychology, said.

“Group based interactions have a distinctive role to play in health and well-being over and above social interaction and social contact.”

RetireAustralia uses many methods to foster friendship and community at its retirement villages, including by providing a safe and secure environment that allows residents to walk around at ease.

“There’s lots of little neighbourhood communities within the wider village setting, where the houses nearby each other have that informal connection people used to have with neighbours,” Storey explained.

Communal barbecue areas, bowls greens and other organised social and sporting events give residents plenty of options to socialise, as Jenny White and Pat Vale found.

The women met 12 years ago at RetireAustralia’s Glengara Retirement Village on the New South Wales Central Coast.

“I mentioned to Pat that my daughter lived at Glenning Valley,” White recalled. “And she said her daughter does too. We talked about it more and it turned out they lived two doors apart!”

Now, the pair are as thick as thieves, even though White takes part in bowls, water aerobics and yoga every week, yet Vale isn’t a big user of the village’s organised activities.

“We all socialise together,” Vale said. “We have dinner and birthday parties together.

“I didn’t think when I moved in that I’d have such a fantastic life and friends as I do.”

Have you noticed your social connections declining as you’ve got older?

Life at our villages is positive, safe and rewarding RetireAustralia is the leading private owner, operator and developer of retirement villages in Australia. We foster environments in which residents enjoy all the benefits of autonomy, connection, healthy living, and purpose, and can feel relaxed and secure in their retirement.