Isolation Nation

Research confirms the benefits of friendship. So why are so many women lonely?

It was one of those rare academic statistics that caught the eye of the nation: Nearly 25 percent of Americans surveyed said they had no one in whom to confide.

The statistic was from the "Social Isolation in America" study, published in the June 2006 American Sociological Review. On average, the study found American adults have only two close friends—down from an average of three in 1985. The study also revealed 80 percent of us confide only in family.

All the major news sources pondered these startling statistics for months. How could it be that one out of every four of us doesn't have a single friend to turn to in times of need? Why do so many of us have no friends outside our family? And does it really matter whether we maintain close friendships?

Research indicates friendship offers big benefits to our physical and emotional health. A 2000 study showed loneliness can cause high blood pressure and sleep disruptions. Data published in 2007 shows lonely people may be at greater risk for developing Alzheimer's later in life. Still another 2000 study found the closer a friend feels to us, the more likely she'll provide major help in a crisis.

When Rosie Sieber's husband, Gordon, was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, the Los Angeles resident had to share the sad news via telephone with her mom and relatives who live in Venezuela. Rosie, 35, knew she'd need more than long-distance encouragement, so she turned to another "family": her neighbors and church. These friends cleaned her house, made her meals, and babysat her toddler son. When Gordon died, Rosie felt so overwhelmed she thought about taking her life. But the continued support of friends kept her going.

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Holly Vicente Robaina
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