Ask women to name the relationships that make their lives meaningful, and female friendships will likely rank high on the list. But having good friends means a great deal more than fun times and girls’ nights out. As women age, their friendships with other women may offer significant health benefits. Recent studies indicate that women can change one another's brain chemistry for the better.
This week on Take Care, Suzanne Braun Levine discusses what makes female friendships so important, especially for older women. Levine is a writer, editor and nationally recognized authority on women and family issues and media. The first editor of Ms. magazine, she was also the first woman editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. Her e-book, "You Gotta Have Girlfriends: A Post-Fifty Posse is Good For Your Health," is the fourth installment in her series, which examines women in “second adulthood.”
Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Suzanne Braun Levine.
Levine first became interested in female friendships for women over 50 when she turned 50 herself. That’s when she began talking to women to learn about the significance of these friendships.
“The more I talked to women about any aspect of their lives — good, bad, indifferent — the punch line of almost every anecdote, whether it was a happy story or a crisis, was ‘I couldn’t have done it without my girlfriends,’” Levine said.
Levine says having a good group of friends is important when it comes to aging. Having a circle of trust enhances the aging process, and Levine says without those relationships, aging can be difficult for women. When it comes to female friends, not even a spouse can fill that important role, she says
Levine cites a study where a woman was trying to calm down before giving a public speech. In one scenario, her spouse came in to help her beforehand, and in the other case it was a female friend. The study showed that the woman actually became more anxious when her spouse was there, but relaxed when it was the friend.
When women are together, the hormone oxytocin is released, one of the health benefits of having female friends. This hormone is normally associated with nursing mothers, so it allows women to feel comfortable when they’re together. But that’s not its only benefit.
“What seems to be an important benefit of this is that oxytocin also reduces stress. Scientists are beginning to think that one of the reasons that women live longer than men is because we have these regular doses of a stress-reducing chemicals that make for less burn out on our systems, while men can be under constant stress,” said Levine. “And that may be one of the factors that shortens their lives.”
When it comes to female friends, old friends are not any more or less valuable than new ones. Levine says having many different types of friends is a good thing that just adds to health advantages.
“I think all of the people we take into our circle of trust play a different role. And given the way our lives have played out different than our mothers, it is not surprisingly and actually part of the health benefit that we accumulate friends,” she said.
Some older women may have trouble making new friends if they have lost connections with friends they had for a longer time. Levine says to approach making new friends in older age the same way you’re told to find a boyfriend when you’re young: participating in activities you enjoy, and meeting others who enjoy them too.