Friendships Might Not Help You Live Longer, But Family Does

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Photo: UWE UMSTAETTER/Getty Images

The search for an old-age cure has a long, strange history. For centuries, people believed in the legend of the fountain of youth; a hundred years ago, a steady diet of yogurt was thought to slow the aging process; these days, we have Peter Thiel’s whole thing about the blood of the young.

Alongside the bizarre, though, plenty of researchers are currently searching for real, science-backed ways to stave off the effects of old age. “I’m confident that an intervention that slows aging in people will arrive in time to positively influence most people alive today,” one longevity researcher recently wrote in a Reddit AMA, with an important caveat: “Life extension is not the primary goal of aging science; health extension is.” It’s not enough to simply pack more years into a single lifetime, in other words — the quality of those years matters, too.

And so far, few things have proven so effective at enriching and extending life than social support. A large body of research has shown that loneliness in old age is linked to poorer physical and emotional health, and that, conversely, meaningful connections can improve both. A new study presented yesterday at the American Sociological Association annual meeting added some nuance to that idea: When it comes to longevity, family, it seems, may matter much more than friendships.  

The study authors, sociologist James Iveniuk and biostatistician L. Philip Schumm (from the University of Toronto and the University of Chicago, respectively), analyzed data from the University of Chicago’s National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project, which surveyed around 3,000 people born between 1920 and 1974. In the first phase of the project, conducted from 2005 to 2006, researchers asked the participants — then between the ages of 57 and 85 — to list up to five people close to them, not including spouses (the average respondent listed around three), and to describe the nature of each relationship.

In the second phase, conducted in 2010 and 2011, the researchers followed up with the same participants about their health and well-being. When Iveniuk and Schumm crunched the numbers from both phases, they found that people who included more family members in their list, as opposed to other relationships, were less likely to die in the intervening years. Family closeness had an additional buffering effect: People who said they were “extremely close” to the family members on their list had a 6 percent risk of death, compared to 14 percent for people who listed relatives but felt less connected to them.

“Because you can choose your friends,” Iveniuk said in a statement, it might make sense to assume the opposite, as “you might be better able to customize your friend network to meet your specific needs.” But “it is the people who in some sense you cannot choose, and who also have little choice about choosing you, who seem to provide the greatest benefit.” More research is needed to understand exactly why that might be the case — but while scientists work on figuring that out, you have plenty of time to go call your grandparents.