Isolation from others is detrimental to human health, studies show. And in the case of women, the more friends they have, a fuller life they could lead.
The Nurses' Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that not having a close friend and confidante was as detrimental to a woman's health as smoking or carrying extra weight. There's more: when the researchers looked at how well the women functioned after the death of their spouse, they found that those women who had a close friend were more likely to survive the experience without any new physical impairment or permanent loss of vitality. Those without friends were not as fortunate.
The stress-coping mechanism in women could itself make women more gregarious. For when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of a woman's stress response, it encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead, according a landmark study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2000.
Dr. Laura Cousin Klein, an Assistant Professor of Bio-behavioral Health at Penn State University and one of the study's authors, says that when a woman actually engages in this tending/befriending, more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect.
But this calming response does not occur in men, because testosterone-which men produce in high levels when they're under stress-seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. The female hormone estrogen; she adds, seems to enhance it, Klein notes.
Until this study was published, it was generally believed that when humans experience stress, it triggers a hormonal cascade that revs the body into a "fight or flight" response-an ancient survival mechanism left over from when humans faced predators daily.
The UCLA study indicated that women in particular, have a wider behavioral repertoire than just "fight or flight.
It will take time for new studies to reveal all the ways that oxytocin encourages women to care for children and hang out with other women, but the "tend and befriend" notion developed by Dr. Klein may help partially explain why women consistently outlive men.
And earlier still, a study found that individuals who had no friends increased their risk of death over a 6-month period. Another study had showed those who had the most friends over a 9-year period cut their risk of death by more than 60%.
Female friendships help calm us, fill in emotional gaps, and help reinforce our personal identities, Jennifer Johnson writes in the website fabulously40.com.
If friends counter the stress that seems to affect so much of our life, 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 troubles researcher Ruthellen Josselson, 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," says 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."
So, when hustle and bustle of everyday life causes you to say "I'll catch up with her later" when a friend calls, you should reconsider. In the words of an old song, "Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other's gold."