Be My Gal-entine? How Friendships Help Your Health

I laughed out loud when I received the card in the mail: “Will you be my GAL-entine?” The card came from my friend Gretchen and it made my heart sing. How lucky I am to have such great girlfriends in my life!

Recently, I went away for a girls’ weekend with my college besties. There were eleven of us altogether, now middle-aged women who still lovingly see each other as 20-year-olds through lavender-colored glasses (our college was James Madison University, whose colors are purple and gold!). We spent the weekend on a plantation property in Virginia reminiscing, laughing and crying. One day, we sat down at the huge dining room table for breakfast, and stayed there talking until bedtime—with occasional meals and a few card games!

It’s been 30 years since graduation. In that time, we have celebrated together through weddings, children and job promotions. We’ve also cried together through disappointments, divorce and even death. Since we are spread out over the country, we don’t see each other regularly, but keep in touch with the occasional phone call, email and holiday card, and when we get together again, it’s like no time has passed. There is something very comforting about friends who know your story—who you were, and who you’ve become—and it turns out cultivating those meaningful friendships may help you live longer.

A quick Google search will show you results from a myriad of studies that find health benefits from friendship including a 2015 analysis that compiled data on more than 3.4 million people from 70 separate studies which found that the absence of meaningful relationships carried a significantly higher risk of mortality. Read more about how loneliness can impact older adult health.

There are studies that show friends may help reduce our stress levels by talking to us about our problems and offering solutions, which can positively impact blood pressure and diabetes. One Harvard study found that social integration delays memory loss in elderly Americans, and other studies show cancer and heart patients have better recovery outcomes when they have a support system around them.

Friends can also influence our health in positive ways just by showing concern about our wellness. One example from my life: my friend Renee always “invites” me to make our yearly mammogram appointments together, then make a day of it with lunch and shopping, or a massage. Making that fun “date” with my friend helps me look forward to what would otherwise be a not-so-fun appointment!

So, this month, let’s celebrate our Gal-entines, and all the love and good health they bring into our lives. Find opportunities to spend time with your friends. It might be just what the doctor ordered!