New Research on Women’s Friendships and Longevity

It has been my lifelong experience that while friendships with women have always been one of my highest priorities and essential to me on so many different levels, my female friends generally have not valued our time together as highly if their relationships with men or family intrude, as reported near the end of this article.

Here’s some food for thought on that subject:

By Gale Berkowitz

A landmark UCLA study suggests friendships between women are special. They shape who we are and who we are yet to be. They soothe our tumultuous inner world, fill the emotional gaps in our marriage, and help us remember who we really are.   By the way,   they may do even more.

Scientists now suspect that hanging out with our friends can actually counteract the kind of stomach-quivering stress most of us experience on a daily basis. A landmark UCLA study suggests that women respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain friendships with other women.

It’s a stunning find that has turned five decades of stress research—most of it on men—upside down.   “Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that when people experience stress, they trigger a hormonal cascade that revs the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible,” explains Laura Cousino Klein, Ph.D., now an Assistant Professor of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State University and one of the study’s authors. “It’s an ancient survival mechanism left over from the time we were chased across the planet by saber-toothed tigers.”

Now the researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just “fight or flight.” “In fact,” says Dr. Klein, “it seems that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress response in a woman, it buffers the “fight or flight” response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead.

When she actually engages in this tending or befriending,  studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect. This calming response does not occur in men”, says Dr. Klein, “because testosterone, which men produce in high levels when they’re under stress, seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen”, she adds, “seems to enhance it.”

The discovery that women respond to stress differently than men was made in a classic “aha!” moment shared by two women scientists who were talking one day in a lab at UCLA. “There was this joke that when the women who worked in the lab were stressed, they came in to clean the lab, have coffee, and bond”, says Dr. Klein.  “When the men were stressed, they holed up somewhere on their own. I commented one day to fellow researcher Shelley Taylor that nearly 90% of the stress research is on males. I showed her the data from my lab, and the two of us knew instantly that we were onto something.”

The women cleared their schedules and started meeting with one scientist after another from various research specialties. Very quickly, Drs. Klein and Taylor discovered that by not including women in stress research, scientists had made a huge mistake:  The fact that women respond to stress differently than men has significant implications for our health.

It may take some time for new studies to reveal all the ways that oxytocin encourages us to care for children and hang out with other women, but the “tend and befriend” notion developed by Drs. Klein and Taylor may explain why women consistently outlive men. Study after study has found that social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol. “There’s no doubt,” says Dr. Klein, “that friends are helping us live.”

In one study, for example, researchers found that people who had no friends increased their risk of death over a 6-month period. In another study, those who had the most friends over a 9-year period cut their risk of death by more than 60%.

Friends are also helping us live better. The famed Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life. In fact, the results were so significant, the researchers concluded, that not having close friends or confidantes was as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight!

And that’s not all! When the researchers looked at how well the women functioned after the death of their spouse, they found that even in the face of one of the largest stressor of all, those women who had a close friend were more likely to survive the experience without any new physical impairments or permanent loss of vitality. Those without friends were not always so fortunate.

Yet if friends counter the stress that seems to swallow up so much of our life these days, if they keep us healthy and even add years to our life, why is it so hard to find time to be with them? That’s a question that also troubles researcher Ruthellen Josselson, Ph.D., co-author of Best Friends: The Pleasures and Perils of Girls’ and Women’s Friendships.

“Every time we get overly busy with work and family, the first thing we do is let go of friendships with other women,” explains Dr. Josselson. “We push them right to the back burner. That’s really a mistake because women are such a source of strength to each other. We nurture one another. And we need to have unpressured space in which we can do the special kind of talk that women do when they’re with other women. It’s a very healing experience.”


5 Responses to New Research on Women’s Friendships and Longevity

  1. After many years of experience with male and female friends, I found that my friendships with women have lasted longer and had greater value (measured in loyalty, honesty, and empathy) than my friendships with men. But that’s just me.


  2. Lia says:

    I have a close friend from many years ago when we connected because we were expecting babies at the same time. There were times we lived in the same small town and didn’t really see each other for many months, but we always came back together. I moved to the “big” city 12 yrs ago, and though I have a lot of friends…women of all ages, men (straight and gay)…I haven’t made another friend that I would consider as close. Women my age seem already to have their friends and are busy with their lives.

  3. Laura Lee says:

    I have tried very hard to maintain my important friendships with women over the years, but it takes two to value the closeness we shared. My friends now mainly value their families and little else. It seems to be the standard in our culture.
    You’re right, older women “seem to already have their friends” and not seek new ones.


  4. Janice says:

    When I read about women pushing their friend to the back burner when they get busy (especially if a new man comes along), I had to agree. You would think that women would recognize the importance of their friends, but in my experience often they don’t. When that happens, it makes me wonder what happened to that woman to cut her off from recognizing what’s good for her.

  5. Adelyn says:

    I have not had a best friend since high school.I did not go to college, and I think that’s where lasting friendships are made. I married and lived in a pretty rural area while my children grew. I was active in PTA and all aspects of my children’s lives.I’m 57 years old and have worked in retail all my life. I have always been told that I have a friendly, warm personality. My son was married 5/15/09 and I helped plan the wedding. Now, I feel I have no purpose. I was laid off from my job in January. I am just so sad… I don’t have anyone to talk to about …anything!My husband is a wonderful person who is always working.That’s all…

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