BFFs for the brain: Older women who have best friends are less likely to be stressed out

URBANA, Ill. — Friendship is an important aspect of life, regardless of race, gender, or even age. When it comes to gender however, a new study finds a woman’s friends play a major role in her health. Researchers from the University of Illinois say staying close with friends into midlife can help lower the amount of stress-related hormones women have.

The new report also reveals communication is a key factor in this equation and, somewhat surprisingly, older women have the advantage here. Researchers say that most studies looking at female friendship have examined younger women. However, this study finds older participants find it easier to communicate with strangers, which also positively impacts stress levels.

Women have evolved an alternative mechanism in response to stress,” says researcher Michelle Rodrigues, currently at Marquette University, in a release. “In order to deal with stress, women can befriend female peers.”

Study authors add this tend-and-befriend response is much different from the traditional “fight-or-flight” response, which they describe as more masculine.

Does age play a role in forming friendships?

Researchers also looked at how selective women are about who they call a friend. They theorized that women engage in more social “pruning” as they age, pursuing a closer and more high-quality circle of friends.

Rodrigues teamed up with Si On Yoon from Illinois’ Beckman Institute, who has been studying the mental aspects of casual conversation throughout a person’s life.

“My research program was focused on language measures in social interactions, and I was glad to work with Dr. Rodrigues to develop an integrative approach including both language processing and physiological measures to study social interactions,” says Yoon, who is now at the University of Iowa.

Their team looked at a total of 32 women, 16 older adults between 62 and 79 years-old and 16 younger adults between 18 and 25. Researchers paired each participant with either a friend or a stranger as a conversation partner. From there, the women had to describe to their partner how to construct a set of puzzle pieces without showing them the design.

“You could look at one [tangram] and say, ‘This looks like a dog.’ Or, you could say, ‘This looks like a triangle, with a stop sign, and a bicycle wheel,’” Rodrigues explains.

While younger women could communicate more efficiently with their friends (using fewer words), they struggled communicating with strangers. On the other hand, older participants showed they could easily articulate abstract terms to both friends and strangers.

“A referential communication task like this requires that you see where the other person is coming from. It seems like the younger adults are a little more hesitant in trying to do that, whereas the older adults have an easier time doing that with strangers,” Rodrigues reports.

Keep your friends close for good health

Given that older participants tend to spend more time with their close-knit friends, researchers say it’s surprising to find that had no impact on their ability to communicate and relate with people outside of their circles.

“Even though older adults choose to spend more time with people who matter to them, it’s clear that they have the social skills to interact with unfamiliar people if and when they choose to,” Rodrigues continues.

Moreover, this ability to communicate helped older women health-wise, limiting the release of stress hormones like cortisol.

“When you experience something stressful, if you have a stress response system that’s working as it should, the result is an elevated amount of cortisol, our primary stress hormone, which then tells our bodies to release glucose into our bloodstreams,” the study authors explain. “That’s reflected in our saliva about 15 to 20 minutes after we experience it. If we see a rise in salivary cortisol from an individual’s baseline levels, that indicates that they are more stressed than they were at the time of the earlier measurements.”

When looking at the differences between friends and strangers across both groups however, the study finds cortisol levels are consistently lower when women are talking with their friends rather than strangers.

“A lot of the research on the tend-and-befriend hypothesis has only focused on young women, so it’s great to have these results that pull that out to the end of life. We can see that friendship has that same effect throughout the lifespan. Familiar partners and friendship buffer stress, and that’s preserved with age,” Rodrigues concludes.

The study appears in the Journal of Women and Aging.

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