Last week I touched on the power of the mind in healing and the science behind unlocking the mechanism of the mind-body connection. A good example of this is the lack of scientific acknowledgement and research of the central role the bond of friendship can play in saving lives and promoting health. There is a net health benefit to these relationships as well.
According to Census Bureau reports, nearly one fourth of all men and nearly 46 percent of women ages 75 or over live alone. Those who shut themselves off from the world are greatly susceptible to higher mortality rates, increased risk of depression, cognitive decline and illnesses. Multiple studies show a clear association with loneliness, higher blood pressure and dementia, as well as with risky health behaviors such as a sedentary lifestyle and smoking.
Exactly why friendship has such a significant effect remains unclear to researchers. Still, you have to wonder why something shown to be a powerful weapon in fighting illness, depression, speeding recovery, slowing the aging process and prolonging life is not made more of a wellness priority. An old adage once put it this way: one person caring about another represents life's greatest value.
So it stands to reason that investing time in making friends and strengthening friendships can pay off in better health and a brighter outlook. But here's the rub. As we all know, true friendships are not easy to build or maintain. It takes effort. Life moves quickly, priorities and interests can change. Friends can grow apart. As we age, companions and confidants retire or move away or grow ill. The circle shrinks. Finding that bond with another — those shared values, interests, understanding and trust from former strangers — is rarely easy.
For older adults, making friends should be easier in some respects, given they have had a longer life for developing relational skills. I think of my mother as a prime example of someone who has a remarkable skill of making friends wherever she goes. For those who may struggle with connecting with others, experts also point out that quality counts more than quantity when it comes to friendships. This seems to be especially true of seniors. As people sense their remaining time growing brief, researchers have noted a tendency to shed superficial relationships in order to concentrate on those they find most meaningful.
Some experts believe that part of the problem of why the subject of friendship has been so overlooked in the field of social science is due to an overwhelming focus on romantic relationships. Just do a quick scan; you'll finds reams of material on families and marriage but very little on the clinical importance of friendship.
This focus on the romantic aspect is also true when it comes to the healing power of human touch. A gentle touch may well have to do with love, but not necessarily romantic love. An example would be the loving touch a parent can give to a child. We tend to overlook the central role that the human touch plays in our lives, of how it shapes both our lives and our social interactions.
"People who are gently touched by a server in a restaurant tend to leave larger tips," writes Dr. David Linden, a professor in Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of "Touch — The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind."
"Doctors who touch their patients are rated as more caring," he adds. "And their patients have reduced stress-hormone levels and better medical outcomes. Even people with clipboards at the mall are more likely to get you to sign their petitions or take their surveys if they touch your arm lightly."
Social touch builds trust, Linden writes. He points out a 2010 study on interpersonal touch conducted with players in the National Basketball Association. Research found that teams that celebrated successful plays with hugs, high-fives, fist bumps and other kinds of touch early in the season subsequently displayed more cooperative, selfless behavior on the court and were more successful as the season progressed.
Like the science of touch, the science of friendship is considered relatively new, but it is an area (like friendship itself) that we need to cultivate and grow. So ask yourself, do you have someone you can turn to when you need them? A true friend can serve to build your confidence and self-esteem when you need it the most.
Good friends are worth fighting for. And they're good for your health.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.