University of North Carolina sociology professor Yang Claire Yang has been studying how friendship impacts humans and has come to believe that there is a definite link between social activity and good health.
Yang decided to follow hundreds of thousands of people ages 12 to 91 and compare their blood pressures, body mass index, waist circumference and levels of the inflammation marker, C-reactive protein, to the intensity of the friendships they had. Her data covered decades.
What she found, according to a report she published last year in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” is that people who had satisfying social interactions processed stress better and had better overall health numbers.
“We were able to see the change in bio-markers over time as a result of their earlier exposure to social connections,” Yang was quoted on the website, Live Science.
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Friendship reduces stress, which reduces the risk of ailments, said Cathy Choate Wilson, vice president of hospital services at Centerstone of Florida in Manatee County.
“When people can talk to other people who are like-minded it’s a stress reduction,” Wilson said last week. “We know that stress causes illnesses. The more you are able to bounce ideas off people, even if they don’t agree with you, is helpful. That’s why therapy is helpful. In fact, most therapists work on building social networks. I think we are made to rely on other people. Having people who will look out for you can be a huge health benefit.”
If Yang’s study and Wilson’s experience are correct, Dot Garland and Mary Alice Swope, who both grew up in Bradenton in the 1940s and have been friends nonstop for 70 years, might both live forever.
A golden friendship
Although Yang’s study didn’t explore if there are extra health benefits to having one super special friend, a so-called “golden” friendship, both Garland and Swope believe they have that kind of friendship and have benefited greatly from it both mentally, physically and spiritually.
They speak of their golden friendship as one that is a social interaction above all others, marked by trust and unconditional support that has endured for many years.
“I can’t imagine my life without her in it,” Garland, who now lives in Ellenton with her husband, Bill, and spends her time creating artful things that pop into her head with her power tools.
“It’s enduring and it only gets better the longer you have it,” said Swope who now lives in retirement in Gainesville, Ga., with her husband, Al Swope, and volunteers at Oakwood First United Methodist Church. “Gold doesn’t wear out and neither does a golden friendship. It is rare. There is nothing like the feeling that this person has known me since I was born and is still speaking to me.”
Garland, who turns 73 on Dec. 16, which she reminds everyone is also Beethoven’s birthday, and Swope, who is 70, talk on the phone regularly and make sure to visit each other at least once a year.
But they say that their relationship is impervious to distance and time.
“When I was growing up, Dottie was the big sister I never had,” Swope said. “So, like so many younger siblings, I looked to her as a role model. We both still treasure this long friendship but I want to be sure folks know that close friendship of any duration is a treasure that is good for us. It’s not too late and it’s never been easier to reconnect with old friends and strengthen those ties.
“I have another childhood friend who still lives in Bradenton,” Swope added. “Linda Terry Mahofski and I graduated in the Manatee High School Class of ’63 and are still close friends. It is a real blessing to have such people in my life.”
Golden friendships are rare these days because life is chaotic, Choate Wilson said.
“I find a 70-year friendship incredible because of the things that go on in our world,” Choate Wilson added. “People move away. Longer-term relationships are hard. But if you could have a golden relationship, there would be benefits because these are people who often know what you will say before you say it. They know everything about you so when there is a bad moment you don’t have to go through all of your baggage to explain. The person knows it.”
“I don’t think having a golden friend is a must to be mentally healthy, but having one would contribute to keeping a person in a right frame of mind,” Choate Wilson added.
I find a 70-year friendship incredible because of the things that go on in our world. People move away. Longer term relationships are hard. But if you could have a golden relationship, there would be benefits because these are people who often know what you will say before you say it. They know everything about you so when there is a bad moment you don’t have to go through all of your baggage to explain. The person knows it.
Cathy Choate Wilson, Centerstone of Florida
The pair both say their faith leads them to believe they will always have a connection, even after death.
“I think we will be in the same place but only God knows how that works,” Swope said. “All I do know is that she will be there and I will be there. When she sees me she will say, ‘It’s just like we thought.’ ”