Good friends bring good health

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Carol Sorgen

Pam Schneider (left) and Randy Jacobs, who grew up next door to each other, have been best friends their whole lives and now live around the corner from one other. Having friends generates benefits in one’s mental as well as physical health — from improved cancer survival to a lower risk of developing dementia.
Photo by Christopher Myers

Valentine’s Day is the traditional celebration of sweethearts. But it might also be worth your while to lift a glass of bubbly in recognition of the friends in your life as well.

“What would life be without friends?” asked Randy Jacobs. “Oh God!”

“I’d be at a loss without my family and friends,” continued the 61-year-old Jacobs, who has known her best friend, Pam Schneider, virtually since birth. The two are just six months apart in age, grew up as next door neighbors, and now live around the corner from each other in Northwest Baltimore County. Not only are Jacobs and Schneider best friends, so too are their daughters.

Though Jacobs is long divorced and Schneider long married, that makes no difference in their relationship. “I’m one of the family,” said Jacobs. The two families even take an annual beach trip together every summer.

“She is my go-to person,” said Jacobs, director of clinical operations at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry. “She knows everything — and more — about me, and vice versa. She’s my rock.”

The two “besties,” as the young folks say, do have other friends as well. Jacobs has two friends whom she first met in fourth grade, and though she doesn’t see them as often as she sees Schneider, when she does, “time melts away.”

“And there’s never been a family event that we haven’t shared together,” Jacobs added. “We’ll always be Ellen/Laurie/Randy…all one word,” referring to her grade school friends.

Jacobs has also always made it a priority to make new friends, especially since her married friends are not always available to join her on, say, a trip to Alaska.

But it’s her longtime friends who share her history — ”they knew me when” — are part of her present, and hopefully will be there in the future to share in both the good times, such as a child’s wedding, and the sad times, such as the deaths of parents.

“Friends mean support,” said Jacobs.

How friends keep you healthy

Good friends may already know how helpful they can be to one another, but now scientists are finding out that friendships also offer the benefit of good health. So says developmental psychologist Susan Pinker, author of The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make us Healthier, Happier and Smarter.

Unfortunately, said Pinker, the middle-aged are the loneliest group of all in the United States. A third of those between the ages of 45 to 49 say they have no one to confide in. For those people, Pinker’s advice is succinct: Find a friend — and preferably more than one!

“Those with a tightly connected circle of friends who regularly gather  — even if it’s just to eat and share gossip — are likely to live an average of 15 years longer than a loner,” said Pinker.

She also observed that people with active social lives have greater physiological resilience and recover faster after an illness than those who are solitary. She cites a recent study of women with breast cancer that found that those with a large network of friends were four times as likely to survive as women with sparser social connections

What researchers are beginning to find, Pinker explained, is that social contact switches on and off the genes that regulate our immune responses to cancer and the rate of tumor growth.

Some other intriguing and perhaps startling statistics: The lowest rate of dementia appears in people with extensive social networks; 50-year-old men with active friendships are less likely to have heart attacks than more solitary men; people who have had a stroke are better protected from grave complications by a tight, supportive social network than they are by medication.

Face-to-face is best

“Social connections are as protective as regular exercise,” said Pinker. “Those with the most face-to-face connections have a two-and-a-half year survival advantage over those with the same disease who are isolated.”

“A hug, a squeeze on the arm, or a pat on the back lowers one’s physiological stress responses, which in turn, helps the body fight infection and inflammation,” she continued. “Being there in person is key.”

Which means, said Pinker, that while Facebook may help you reconnect with people from your past or even meet new friends, carrying on a friendship solely online will not provide you with the same physiological and emotional benefits that a night out with your BFF will.

“The people most likely to survive to old age are those with solid face-to-face relationships,” she said. “They are married, they get together with friends and family frequently, they belong to a religious group, or have another regular social commitment, such as choir practice, a hiking group or a bridge club.

“Each of these factors individually predicts mortality independently of how healthy, well-to-do, overweight or physically fit you are.”

Men should especially take note, said Pinker. While men are likely to flip through their contact list with its hundreds of names, their actual close relationships tend to be fewer and less intense than women’s.

“When it comes to friendships, it’s quality vs. quantity when you’re talking about the difference between men and women,” Pinker observed.

Childhood friends are special

Marilyn Wenglin Smith, who grew up in Baltimore and now lives in Chevy Chase, is still part of a group she lovingly refers to as “the growing up girlfriends.” All between the ages of 65 and 67, their lives have taken decidedly different turns since they were all youngsters together in the Baltimore City neighborhood near Reisterstown Road Plaza.

“We went to the same elementary school, the same junior high, and some of us to the same high school,” recalled Smith. But after that, some went to college and to illustrious careers — Smith herself earned a doctorate and is a writer and writing instructor — while one member of the group became a hippie, another won the lottery, another worked in a cafeteria, etc.

“But it doesn’t matter,” said Smith. “We’re in almost daily contact via Facebook and email, and we meet for lunch every two to three months to catch up.”

Back in the day, said Smith, having such a close group of friends meant there was always somebody to play with. “I never remember being alone,” she said.

Besides the group of eight girls, there were “hundreds” of young people in that city neighborhood, and you could find 50 to 60 of them every summer night hanging out together. “Nobody back then had a car!” said Smith.

All these years later, the friends share the same roots. “We know each other’s families, and we’re there for each other now as we’re starting to go through more serious things,” said Smith.

About the only topic that can cause any tension among the friends is politics. Not everyone shares the same world view, so “it doesn’t make sense to get into that conversation,” Smith said.

Whatever their political viewpoints may be, these women provide each other a significant source of continuity and stability, warmth and comfort. “We may have taken different professional and educational paths,” said Smith, “but we have a shared history. We know each other.”

New friends are important, too

As we get older and our friends move away, become ill or die, it’s even more important to keep adding to your roster of friends. “If you have no one to talk to, the effects can be pretty alarming,” said Pinker.

Marcia Loebman Goldman has longtime friends, including her three sisters, high school and college friends — “my touchstone friends”— and her “true best friend” since 7th grade, who just happens to be a man and happily married.

But Goldman, who is 55 and lives in Fells Point, is always open to making new friends, especially since her divorce three years ago and her move back to Baltimore.

“Fortunately, I never disconnected with my Baltimore friends,” said Goldman, adding that through Facebook she was also able to connect with other old friends, all of whom have been “lifesavers” during the traumatic days of her divorce.

But new friends, many of them single women like herself, are also helping her to get out more and do things she didn’t used to do, like going to a club to listen to music or taking a bike ride.

“Having a lot of friends — not just in Baltimore, but all over the world — has many benefits,” said Goldman.

Emotionally, it was her friends (and her sisters and mother) who pulled her through the dark days of her divorce. Physically, she now has friends to hike and bike with. Socially, there are friends to play mah jongg or travel with.

“My friends enlighten and broaden my world,” said Goldman.