Friends reunited

Nurture those friendships – new research suggests that as well as being great stress-busters, they can help you live longer.

On my first day at boarding school a girl I'd never met before came bouncing up to me and asked me if I would be her best friend. I said I didn't know and that I didn't think it worked like that. She went off with a trembling lip and I later saw her asking some other new girl the same question. I was always nice to her, but she never did become my BF. You can't force friendship. Friendships are developed over a period of time, often through mutual interests. Many long-lasting friendships are forged during childhood and teenage years, surviving early rivalries and break-ups at a time when you don't understand how such bonds need to be carefully nurtured.

Medical science is now making the connection between health and having a close-knit circle of friends. With a little help from your friends it seems you can live longer. In fact, close ties with friends and family can boost a person's health more than all the sensible things, such as keeping control of your weight, giving up cigarettes and getting regular exercise, according to a recent survey. Researchers from Brigham Young University in Utah looked at 148 studies with a total of 300,000 participants from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, tracking their social relationships and whether they survived to the end of their particular study, which averaged about seven years. The results, published in the Public Library of Science Medicine journal, found a strong link between having lots of friends and strong social relationships and living a long life. The report also says that isolating ourselves can be as unhealthy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or not exercising.

"Those who scored higher on those measures of social relationships were 50 per cent more likely to be alive at that follow-up than people who scored low on those measures," says Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who led the study. The report indicates several ways relationships can affect our health, from childhood to later life. Friends can help us cope with stress. They can help us maintain healthy habits, such as eating well, exercising or seeing a doctor.

"The idea that a lack of social relationships is a risk factor for death is still not widely recognised by health organisations and the public," says Holt-Lunstad. "When someone is connected to a group and feels responsibility for other people, that sense of purpose and meaning translates to taking better care of themselves and taking fewer risks." In fact, the benefits of social relationships are so pronounced that doctors are being urged to take loneliness much more seriously. Another report, by the Mental Health Foundation, published in May, blamed technology and the pressures of modern life for widespread feelings of loneliness in all age groups in the UK. These are worrying findings.

One of my dearest friends once told me very firmly that you "have to make time for people". She always did, from the great big smile she greeted me with, to the fresh flowers in my bedroom when I visited, homemade cakes and, most of all, her complete attention. I didn't realise how special that was until she died suddenly, at an early age, leaving a huge gap in the lives of all her friends. It's too late to tell her how much her friendship meant to me and my family, and I regret that.

Too often, you have someone in your mind and intend to ring them, but you're busy and put it off until later. Then you forget altogether and the moment has passed. As you get older and are separated by distances that can become more difficult, but it's important to make the effort. If you don't nurture them, friendships fizzle out. Some you can reignite, but others just fade away, and there's very little you can do about that except move on.

People who have served in the armed forces understand the "two-year friendships" that you make on military bases. Some of them stick, but many drift away at the end of the posting. The expat life in the UAE is a bit like that. You meet people from such diverse backgrounds but many are so focused on their working lives that they just don't have time to make proper lasting friendships. The Utah report found that men and women of all ages benefited from close relationships, and though modern conveniences and technology have led some to think that old-fashioned friendships are no longer necessary, there are plenty of disadvantages with high-tech friendships - nothing quite lives up to seeing your friends in person.

Some friends can stay on the phone for hours, and if you're not into lengthy chit-chats it's easy to put off picking up the phone. Phone calls can be stressful, too - girlfriends who don't work inevitably phone you at the office to say not very much, and I'm constantly phoning back in the evening to explain yet again that I work in an open-plan office where everybody can hear your business E-mail can be wonderful, but also very irritating. Not everybody has the skill to sound chummy on e-mail. It's one of my favourite forms of communication - and I will happily dash off reams to faraway friends - but if they don't write for a living, their replies are often disappointingly short. They don't mean to shortchange me; it's just that their e-mails often sound stilted and unlike the warm, funny people I know and love. They'll give me the bald facts without the sort of gossipy embellishment that brings news alive, and when they run out of incidents to describe they just stop. I like to read all the frills, the thought processes and lots of colourful asides. (Maybe there's a gap in the market to teach people how to sound like themselves in e-mails).

I have a very close friend who writes me proper pen-and-ink letters once or twice a year. I treasure them, they make me laugh, and seeing her familiar handwriting pulls me back in an instant. Even at Christmas, when her card arrives I usually put the kettle on because I know it's going to take some time to read it. She lives in what is often described as "leafy" Surrey and writes about the goings-on in the village, the forthcoming fete and how a bossy neighbour is marshalling her jam-making troops; not to mention the tensions in the church choir caused by an illicit romance and fury at a local developer who is building a block of flats overlooking her lovely garden.

While your old friends will always be special, it's a pleasure to make new ones when you don't expect it - and as you get older this is often the case. I joined a women's chorus called Dubai Harmony last year and it's turned out to be the most incredibly supportive network of friends that you could wish for. When someone needs help there's a wide range of skills at hand. There's always someone to pop round when you're ill or phone when she knows your husband is away and you might be lonely. They include you at their supper parties even as a "single" rather than saying "Oh, we must get together when John gets back," as if you don't exist without your other half.

Friendships live and die naturally, and there's no point stressing over some that are simply too high-maintenance. The joy of true friendship is being able to say "No" to things. No, I don't want to go and see the exhibition of Mongolian art, or listen to whale music or climb Kilimanjaro. And of course there's that old chestnut from the 1970 movie Love Story when Ali MacGraw says to Ryan O'Neal: "Love means never having to say you're sorry." That goes for friendship, too.