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True friendships are good for the health of men and women

Most of the emails I receive that request forwarding to others, I don't pay much attention to, unless they have cute animal photos or some real meaning to me. One from my best friend Bev, who lives in Mesa Ariz., captured my attention. The subject line "I knew we were good for each other!" and the contents intrigued me. It was about a lecture at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, Calif., called "he body-mind connection - the relationship between stress and disease."

I have just touched on friendships and their importance to me in past columns, but the information in this email and my subsequent research should also be food for thought for all older adults. The bottom line is that friendships are good for your health, more so for women than men.

Why is that? According to the email, women connect with each other differently and provide support systems, which help each other to deal with stress and difficult life experiences. Quality "girlfriend time" actually has a positive physical effect on women by creating more serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps combat depression and can create a general feeling of well being. Women more readily share their feelings with each other, while men often form relationships around activities. Men sit down with a buddy and talk about jobs, sports, cars, fishing, hunting and golf, but rarely do they discuss their feelings and their personal lives. Men tend to form close friendships around activities, while women tend to form close relationships around emotions.

In my research, I found that Dr. Alan Schatzberg, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and a former chairman of the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at the Stanford University School of Medicine, presented the lecture.

"One of the best things that a man could do for his health is to be married to a woman whereas for a woman, one of the best things she could do for her health was to nurture her relationships with her girlfriends," Schatzberg said. Apparently the "students" attending the lecture laughed, but Dr. Schatzberg was serious.

The e-mail states, "Women do it (share feelings) all the time. We share from our souls with our sisters, mothers and girlfriends and evidently that is very good for our health."

Schatzberg opines that spending time with a friend is just as important to our general health as jogging or working out at a gym. There's a tendency to think that when we are exercising we are doing something good for our bodies, when we are hanging out with friends, we are wasting our time and should be more productively engaged — not true. In fact, Schatzberg said, "Failure to create and maintain quality personal relationships with other humans is as dangerous to our physical health as smoking!"

Both men and women should maintain strong relationships and not have friends who have a negative effect on them. Don't take the time to foster relationships with women or men who don't provide you emotional support. You need to cultivate positive relationships that help reduce your stress level and thereby help you to maintain good health.

According to the University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing, "It is important to note that 'mind' is not synonymous with brain. Instead, the mind consists of mental states such as thoughts, emotions, beliefs, attitudes and images. The brain is the hardware that allows us to experience these mental states." We should share our mental states with our friends and reap the health benefits by doing so.

Many of us didn't have a chance or didn't take the time or put things on the back burner during our careers, and didn't cultivate long-term, lasting relationships with friends. If that's the case, it isn't too late. Don't isolate yourself at home. Get out of the house. Both men and women can go to the nearest senior center and get involved, take classes, make friends and take the time to get to know them, so that you feel comfortable talking to them on a regular basis.

Join a social club, such as the Red Hats, which offers opportunities for women to get out, do new things and have fun. Men can join a chess club, or meet informally with a friend to play chess or another game they enjoy. Start a book club or a walking club. Start your own lunch bunch and meet once a month or a Girls Night Out or a Guys Night Out.

I have been very fortunate in my life to have always had good friends to lean on in good times and bad. I don't know how I would have gotten through a separation and divorce in the early 1970s, if it weren't for my friend Bev and the support she gave me during that difficult time. She and I have been there for each other when our parents and my brother died.

We also shared the good times — each other's marriages, the birth of her children, her son's wedding and many other joyous times. We don't let the many miles between us keep us apart. We both look forward to our online chats every Wednesday evening.

The distance doesn't seem so wide during these sessions. We share opinions and happenings in our extended families; discuss books and book clubs, health concerns, news about our husbands and dogs and any other topic that comes up. I also value my longtime friendships through our Girls Night Out group, my Timbuktu lunch group, my senior women's bowling league (duckpins), the Maryland Business and Professional Women, the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association and other organizations I belong to. All these well-developed relationships should help me to maintain my health for many years to come.

Douglas Pagels, an author and editor who writes for Blue Mountain Arts, said, "A friend is one of the nicest things you can have, and one of the best things you can be." I wish that experience of friendship for all older adults, both men and women.

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