Thursday, April 23, 2009

Friends, Longevity, and Walking

With the emergence of Girls from Ames, there is a newly acute awareness of the importance of social relations for health and longevity. We have known this about social relations within the family for a long time. I was personally introduced to this in the late 1970s by Stanley Krippner, an academic psychologist who studied cross cultural healing. One case example had particular impact on my thinking. This was about an elder woman from Central America who was near death. A native healer was called, and came to perform psychic healing. I recall that the healer claimed it was psychic surgery. This did not fool Dr. Krippner, who required that his graduate student study the art of magicians so that they could better understand sleight of hand. Stanley documented that indeed, the healer's performance was sleight of hand. Yet the elder recovered. So there must be some sort of dynamic. He concluded that it must have been the family members that the healer insisted bringing to the sick woman and the social interaction, the de-isolation, that led to the cure.

Now we have an article in the New York Times, that presents some very compatible research results. A brief summary of research in the article identifies impacts of long term friendships on survival from breast cancer, reduced risk of heart attack and reduced fatalities from coronary heart disease, and reduced incidence of colds. One might ask whether this is alternatively a result of strong local relationships in addition to strong longterm relationship, that is, that people who have strong longterm relationships (at any geographical distance) also have strong local relationships, and it is really the local relationships that make the difference. The research is inconclusive, but the Times article seems to indicate that the longterm social relationships are actually more important than family relationships.

There is a line of unasked and unanswered questions that I pose about the question of whether such relationships extend to people's enduring capability to walk and run well. Frankly, I would bet that there is a relationship. Here is some introductory thinking about what the intermediate dynamics might be.
  • People with good relationships would have a sense that life is worth living and in fact enjoyable, which would lead to continued physical vigor.
  • People would enjoy and have fun walking in order to connect with their friends.
  • People with friends would not give up, and thus would be better at recovering from injuries and problems.
  • Such people would continue walking and maintaining themselves because they have something to live for. One of the problems of living into ones 90s is that many or all of one's friends pass away and one is left isolated. The solution to this is the development of new friendships, particularly with younger people. I have seen this occur when older people retain their mental aliveness and curiosity so that they are interesting to talk to. This again comes back to friendships.
  • The ability to walk competently enables seniors to maintain relationships better and to continue to value them.
  • Continued ambulation reduces the likelihood of depression and isolation, and these lead to continued ambulation. In some of what I have seen, loss of ambulatory competency results from not maintaining oneself. So friendships that reduce what leads to this will also reduce loss of ambulatory competency.
  • In conclusion, lack of isolation, ambulatory competency, and linkage with friends are in many ways synonymous.

Possibly the most intriguing research finding in relation to this is summarized near the end of the Times article. Students wearing a heavy backpack were asked to estimate how steep a hill was in front of them. The students who stood beside a friend saw the steepness of the hill as being significantly less than those who stood alone in front of the hill. It would appear then that the task of walking up the hill, or for that matter, on a level surface if it is trying, is made more easy if one has the sense of the presence of friends. This would suggest strongly that friends make a difference for walking.

I am very interested in what others may have to say about this.

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