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Can good friends help you live longer?

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When it comes to living a long healthy life, maintaining strong social relationships may be as important as not smoking, according to findings published yesterday in PLoS Medicine.

In the study, researchers from Brigham Young University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill analyzed data from 148 studies that measured frequency of human interaction and tracked health outcomes for a period of seven and a half years on average. Time reports that researchers found:

Those with poor social connections had on average 50 percent higher odds of death ... That boost in longevity is about as large as the mortality difference observed between smokers and nonsmokers, the study's authors say. And it's larger than differences in the risk of death associated with many other well-known lifestyle factors, including lack of exercise and obesity ... The friend effect did not appear to vary by sex or by age, with men and women of all ages and health statuses showing roughly equal benefit. Nor were lonely people unusually susceptible to any one disease in particular.

The study is part of a growing body of research on how friendships and social networks influence individuals' overall health. A 10-year Australian study involving more than 1,500 people over the age of 70 showed participants with a large circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the 10-year study period than those with fewer friends. Research from 2008 involving identical twins showed siblings with a circle of close friends were healthier than their counterparts despite similarities in DNA and upbringing.

However, a person's perception of the quality of their friendships could be an important factor when it comes to determining how social ties affect health. A study published last month found that the mere existance of a relationship doesn't necessarily lead to a person feeling satisfied and supported or to improved health.

Previously: How social networks might affect your health and New research confirms connection between loneliness, poor health
Photo by Anna Gutermuth

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