WHEN ELISE NEEDELL BABCOCK was sent to bed for seven months to safeguard a fragile pregnancy, she kept her spirits up thanks to her husband, Jack, and a handful of friends. A buddy from work phoned frequently to pass along office jokes. A neighbor and full-time mom carried in picnic lunches and entertained her with stories and snapshots of her children. A bedridden pen pal from Chicago, whom Elise bumped into on the Internet, tapped out e-mail messages of support late at night when both women found sleep difficult.
"In times of crisis, we need a variety of friends," says Elise, a cancer counselor in Houston and the author of When Life Becomes Precious (Bantam, 1997). Her "confinement" had a happy ending. Daughter Lexi is now an active toddler, and Elise knows firsthand what her cancer patients have been telling her for years: Friendship can have a positive impact on health.
"Of my seven or eight closest friends, no two are the same," Elise says. "Yet each one had the ability to bring the outside world to me in a different way during those long months."
The idea that close relationships somehow help us prevent, cope with, and bounce back from illness has been around for years. But experts now have hard evidence that friendships actually boost our immune system, improve the quality of our life, and help us live longer. They point to a research project that exposed volunteers to a cold virus and proved that people with a variety of friends had an easier time fighting the germs than those without close relationships. A California study of terminally ill breast-cancer victims showed that those women who attended support-group meetings survived twice as long as those who didn't. In another experiment, heart patients with friends at their sides during checkups had lower blood pressures and slower heart rates than patients who came alone to the clinic. "Simply put, having someone to talk to is very powerful medicine," concluded a team of doctors after studying the friendship-and-health connection for five years.1