(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)
Going out to lunch with a friend, seeing a movie with your spouse and babysitting the grandkids, aren't just fun activities you do every day. They're also essential for your health, according to scientific research.
Judith Horstman, author of The Scientific American Healthy Aging Brain: The Neuroscience of Making the Most of Your Mature Mind, shares six reasons why keeping your social life humming may do the same for your brain and well-being.
1. Add years to your life
Turns out, being social really may be able to influence how long you live — and there's research to prove it. According to a study conducted at Brigham-Young University, loneliness and isolation can have a bigger impact on your life span than obesity — and we all know how bad obesity is for us. Another study from BYU and University of Chapel Hill North Carolina found that people who had fewer social connections had a 50 percent higher risk of dying within the seven-year study follow up period.
(MORE: A Smart Way to Curb Senior Loneliness)
And, says Horstman in her book, research has shown that friendships, whether those friends are near or far, increase our chances for a long, healthy life more so than children or other relatives.
2. Reduce the risk of stroke
While taking a trip to visit long-time distant friends or spending a night out with buddies may seem like a distraction from real healthy habits, like going to the gym, or getting a good night’s sleep, those activities are actually helpful to your heart.
Research has shown that spending time with friends lowers your blood pressure and reduces inflammation in your body, says Horstman in her book, which in turn can decrease the probability of stroke or other brain damage. And according to research that appeared in the Harvard School of Public Health newsletter, being engaged in life and having a sense of enthusiasm, seems to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
(MORE: Why Girlfriends Are Good for a Woman’s Health)
3. Boost your immune system
University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, who studies social isolation as it affects the brain and our other biology, finds it disconcertingly associated with illness — both mental and physical. And research has shown that being socially isolated can lower your immune system; a Carnegie Mellon University study found that being more social upped your resistance to colds and flu, while being isolated, was a major risk factor in getting sick.
4. Encourage good habits
Having relationships with people to whom we are important can lower stress and the tendency to depression. And, so long as our friends have healthy habits, says Horstman, it also decreases the tendency to unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking. When we know we matter, it’s somehow easier to make the right choices for our own well-being.
5. Lower or delay your risk of memory loss or Alzheimer’s disease
Any social activity that engages your brain and keeps it active is good for you. But interacting with friends who are younger than you are may be especially therapeutic. Sharon Arkin, a psychiatrist at the University of Arizona, runs a clinical program in which Alzheimer’s patients engage in exercise sessions with college students. Her program helps to stabilize cognitive decline and improve patients’ moods.
(MORE: How to Build an Amazing Intergenerational Friendship)
And, as if you needed another reason to babysit your grandkids, research has shown that women who spend one day a week caring for their grandchildren may have a lower risk of getting Alzheimer's.
6. Relieve pain
If you ever had your mother stroke your fevered brow or kiss a skinned knee when you were a child, and somehow felt better, you’re not alone and it wasn’t just your imagination. Research shows that something as simple as holding hands with someone you care about can lower pain perception, as well as blood pressure. So whether you hold hands, give someone a hug or get a massage, it can help reduce pain and help you feel better.
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