The old expression “blood is thicker than water” holds true for longevity, according to a new study.
Older adults who report being close to family members are more than twice as likely to be alive five years later than those who are close to friends.
The study looked at social relationships among 3,000 people between the ages of 57 and 85. They were asked to list five of their closest companions and how close they felt to them. Excluding spouses, people listed an average of 2.91 confidantes who they perceived as providing high levels of emotional support.
Then researchers revisited the group five years later. Those who had reported that they felt “extremely close” to a non-spousal family member had about a 6% chance of dying during the five years. Those who reported closeness to friends—but not family—had a 14% chance of dying.
Dr. James Iveniuk is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health. He is the lead author of the study.
“We found that older individuals who had more family in their network, as well as older people who were closer with their family were less likely to die,” he said. “No such associations were observed for friends.
New research suggests that having more or closer relationships with family members can decrease the risk of mortality in older adults and seniors. However the findings, which are set to be presented at the the 111th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA), also found that having close friendships or a larger group of friends does not have the same effect.
In the first wave, 2995 participants aged 57 to 85 were asked to list up to five of their closest confidantes, describe the nature of each relationship in detail, and report how close they felt to each person.
The results showed that excluding spouses, each participant had on average 2.91 close confidants, with most reporting high levels of support from their social contacts. As well as being in good health physically, many participants also reported that they did not feel very lonely.
In the second wave, the team assessed the mortality of participants.
The results showed that those who listed more non-spousal family members in their network of confidantes benefited from a lower risk of death than those who listed fewer family members. Those who reported feeling “extremely close” to the non-spousal family members on their list benefited from a roughly six per cent risk of mortality within the next five years, compared to those who reported feeling “not very close” to family members, who had around a 14 per cent risk of mortality.
Despite the fact that, as Iveniuk commented, “Because you can choose your friends, you might, therefore, expect that relationships with friends would be more important for mortality, since you might be better able to customize your friend network to meet your specific needs,” surprisingly, closer relationships with friends, and having more friends as confidants, didn’t have the same effect.
In addition the study found that being married, regardless of the quality of the marital relationship, a larger network size, and greater participation in social organizations, also all consistently reduced the risk of death to more or less the same extent, although the amount of time spent with confidants, access to social support, and feelings of loneliness were found to be less important.