Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Friends, marriage and longevity


Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky is one of today’s leading experts on stress and, as such, is often asked to give interviews. In one of them, the reporter asked him what his particular recipe was for dealing with chronic stress. The answer: “I love my job; I exercise regularly and don’t miss my three soccer matches a week; and I’ve been in a wonderful marriage for almost 20 years”.

The reporter was furious. The article was for a magazine aimed at executive, single and powerful women. “Do you realize that these women are on average over 35, live for work and may never get married? How can I tell them that they would suffer less from the consequences of chronic stress if they were married?” 

And yet it’s a fact: on average, married people get sick less and live longer than single people. Devastating events, such as the death of a child, do not increase mortality in the following years among married parents, but they do increase it among those who were already divorced or widowed at the time of the loss, and who did not have the support of a spouse. Among patients with serious heart disease, the mortality rate is three times higher among those who do not have the social support of close friends and spouses.

Relationships affect our lives in many ways, and one of them, which has a direct impact on well-being, is the regulation of the stress response. Socially isolated people have an overactive stress response system, which causes hypertension, leads to the formation of plaques in the arteries and increases the chance of heart disease. In the end, living alone can have as great a negative impact on longevity as smoking, being hypertensive, obese or sedentary – all due to chronic stress.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that marriage is the solution to all problems. It can be a protective factor – but only if it’s with the right person. You don’t need to be a scientist to know that a bad marriage is bad for your health, with negative consequences for body and mind.

Having a stable partner is great, but it’s not everything. Close friends – good friends, the kind who know about your life, support you in any circumstance and show up at the first call for help – reduce your stress response and do a lot of good for your health. But you already knew that…

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo on September, 2006.

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