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A little help from your friends

Fostering strong social connections does not come easy for many men, but it is one of the best means to a longer and healthier life.

Social connections are as important to your health as proper diet and exercise. Research has linked social bonding to longer lives, lower incidence of depression and anxiety, and reduced risk of disease.

“Our brains and bodies function best when we are part of a community and maintain close, personal connections,” says Dr. William S. Pollack, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Yet, for many men, being socially active is a challenge. In fact, a study by Independent Age and the International Longevity Centre-UK found that 23% of men older than age 50 have contact with friends less than once a month.

Making new friends

One reason men may not develop social ties is that they do not see it as their job. “Men’s friendships often mediate through the women in their lives,” says Dr. Pollack. “However, when those relationships end, through breakup, death, or divorce, the men find that their social circles have ended, too.”

Also, any existing band of friends can shrink as people age. Friends drift apart or move away. “This makes men even more isolated,” says Dr. Pollack.

How can you build a more active social life? Here are some suggestions:

  • Take the buddy approach. Most men’s friendships revolve around buddy activities, so join a sports group like a golf league or a running group.

  • Volunteer for an organization. Odds are you will meet other people who share your interests and values.

  • Enroll in a local college class or join a civic club. These meet regularly, so you do not have to worry about inviting people or waiting to be invited.

Once you have met a potential friend, begin small and let the relationship evolve at its own pace, suggests Dr. Pollack. For instance, meet for coffee, watch the game on TV, or grab some lunch. Also, retaining friendships takes work, so approach it like any other commitment or appointment.

“Schedule reminders on your smartphone or computer calendar to alert you when it’s time to reach out again,” he says.

Emotions in motion

Another advantage of social interactions comes into play when you need to talk with someone—a situation that is often tough for men to embrace.

“Many men are raised not to show emotion, as it may be seen as a sign of weakness,” says Dr. Pollack. “So they keep their problems bottled up and do not feel comfortable talking about them, especially with other men, for fear they will appear soft.”

Yet, men should explore friendships for ones that also can offer emotional support when needed, he adds. Of course, the hard part is making that initial move.

Dr. Pollack suggests using a question to raise a topic you want to discuss, such as, “Has anyone you know ever had this issue? Do you know what they did about it that worked, or did not work?”

This approach helps because it begins in a place where men are comfortable and tend to excel—problem solving.

“It also puts you in an environment where you will not feel vulnerable or ashamed,” says Dr. Pollack. “If you do not get the response you want, you can move back into the friendship as it stands, with no harm, and try again with another friend.”

But you may be surprised at the response you get. “Men will open up when given the chance,” says Dr. Pollack. “Odds are your friend probably wants the same emotional support from you.”

Choose the best social connection

While any type of contact is healthy—in person, by email, or on the phone—a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (October 2015) found that face-to-face encounters provided the greatest benefit. How much interaction is enough? The more often, the better. The study found that those who engaged with friends three or more times a week had a 6.5% chance of reporting depressive symptoms, while those who met only once or twice a month had an 8.1% risk. Those who interacted every few months had an 11.5% risk.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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