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Midlife Friendship Key To A Longer, Healthier Life


At some point, most people feel lonely. But according to some surveys, the middle years are the loneliest period of life. Feeling isolated is also dangerous and it can be fatal. As journalist Barbara Bradley Hagerty found for our series on midlife, keeping up with friends at that point in life is one of the best things one can do to stay healthy, both mentally and physically.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: On a cold, wet Monday morning, my friend Cherie Harder and I arrive at the University of Virginia's neuroscience laboratory in Charlottesville, Va. Casey Brown, the project coordinator for the lab, leads us to the basement where a brain scanner is being prepped. She asks us to remove our socks and roll up a pant leg each. Then she clamps on anklets that will deliver electric shocks. It's no big deal she says.

CASEY BROWN: It's like walking across a carpet and touching a electronics device - just a basic static shot. It's meant to be unpleasant but not painful.

HAGERTY: We are risking bodily pain for a larger goal - to see what friendship looks like in my brain. The technician slides me into the brain scanner.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Barb, can you hear me?

HAGERTY: I can hear you.

I gaze at the screen above. Whenever I see a red X, there's a 1 in 5 chance that I'll receive an electric shock in the next few seconds. Whenever I see an O, that means I'm safe. The researchers want to see how my brain reacts to the prospect of pain, and in particular, whether it behaves differently whether I'm facing the threat alone, holding the hand of a stranger - one of the technicians - or the hand of Cherie, who's been a close friend for nearly 20 years.

CHERIE HARDER: (Laughter) Always an adventure with you, Barb (laughter).

HAGERTY: You can't hear the zap of an electric shock because my recorder can't be near the scanner. But trust me, it hurts a lot. And after the first jolt, I feel a sort of panicked dread every time I see a red X. I am hugely relieved when the experiment ends.

First, I want to say for the record that that was not like walking across a carpet and touching some piece of metal. It was a little bit traumatic.

Psychology Professor James Coan has run the test on dozens of pairs. And he often sees the same neurological quirk. When a person is alone or holding a stranger's hand as she anticipates the shock, the regions of the brain that process danger, quote, "light up like a Christmas tree." But when holding the hand of a trusted person, the brain grows quiet.

JAMES COAN: And what we think happens is having a friend with you alters the perception of that threat.

HAGERTY: So I can take it because Cherie is here?

COAN: Yeah.

HAGERTY: Coan says friends are key to our survival, not just emotionally but biologically.

COAN: When we have friends, our brain says, phew, OK. Even if something really dangerous happens, we have a lot of help. So now, it's safe to take my resources and devote them to bodily maintenance.

HAGERTY: Piles of studies show that those with a network of friends live longer, recover faster from cancer and even preserve their memories better than those with few or no friends, which brings us to the dark flipside of friendship - loneliness.

Now, please indulge me here. I couldn't find any isolated middle-agers to talk to because, well, they're isolated. But in Boston, I did find 85-year-old Teresa Santos Taylor.

TERESA SANTOS TAYLOR: I just want to die. I want to just disappear. Every night I thought, OK, that's the last night. The next morning, I was still here and on and on.

HAGERTY: As her friends died and her family moved away, Taylor stopped taking her pills. She often forgot to eat. She retreated into her small apartment until one day Alexis Seubert called.

ALEXIS SEUBERT: Yeah. There's a bit of dancing too.

TAYLOR: There's going to be dancing?

SEUBERT: Yeah. There's a little bit of dance floor.

TAYLOR: Oh, my goodness.


TAYLOR: Any chance for a boyfriend?

SEUBERT: (Laughter).

HAGERTY: Suebert works for the Boston chapter of Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, a group that organizes visits and parties for older people. She calls loneliness a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Later, in the apartment building stairwell, she says a lonely person unused to social interaction can become aggressive, alienating the people who are trying to reach out.

SEUBERT: As this happens over and over, you develop this reputation. No one wants to come visit you because you're rude, you're mean, you're ungrateful. And then, you know, that person becomes even more suspicious.

HAGERTY: Loneliness afflicts a 50-year-old in the same debilitating way it assaults an 80-year-old and more often, says John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago. In fact, his research for AARP found that those between 45 and 65 are the loneliest people in the United States.

Why? Huge numbers of middle-aged adults are unmarried and because of the recession, find themselves freelancing or working alone. And Cacioppo says the Internet can intensify loneliness since lonely people may substitute Facebook friends for face-to-face relationships.

JOHN CACIOPPO: If I'm spending all of my time trying to get more friends listed on Facebook and not interacting with anybody, that's using it in a way that's not getting at the core need that one has. It feels safe but it's not nutritious in the long term.

HAGERTY: That loneliness comes at a devastating price.

CACIOPPO: It promotes social withdrawal. It promotes hostility. It promotes increased anxiety. Meaning in life decreases. Suicides are associated with loneliness.

HAGERTY: So are homicides. Researchers say lonely people die earlier than people with friends. They are far more likely to suffer a heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, a compromised immune system. Studies show loneliness is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being obese or drinking excessively.

CACIOPPO: Not to mention, it makes your life miserable. That would be sufficient reason to want to do something about it.

HAGERTY: One month after my trip to the University of Virginia, professor James Coan can show me what my friendship with Cherie looks like in my brain.

COAN: OK. First thing's first, there is a picture of your brain.

HAGERTY: The scans show that when I faced the threat of an electric shock to my ankle, my brain lit up in fearful reaction, except when I held hands with Cherie. Then my brain quieted down dramatically.

COAN: You're saying, you know, she is someone that I trust. We're friends. We're close friends. We will do things for each other. Your brain is assuming that part of the task that's involved with dealing with that threat, she will take on.

HAGERTY: Once again, The Beatles were spot on.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends.

HAGERTY: For NPR News, this is Barbara Bradley Hagerty.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) Do you need anybody? I just need someone to love. Could it be anybody? I want somebody to love. Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends. Oh, going to try... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.