Childhood friendships may be linked to physical health benefits in adulthood, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science. The findings show that boys who spend more time with friends tend to have lower blood pressure and lower BMI as men in their early 30s.
“These findings suggest that our early social lives may have a small protective influence on our physical health in adulthood, and it’s not just our caregivers or financial circumstances, but also our friends who may be health-protective,” said psychological scientist Dr. Jenny Cundiff of Texas Tech University.
Earlier research has shown a link between adults’ social well-being — including their close relationships and sources of social support — and health-related outcomes including cardiovascular risk factors. In the new study, Cundiff and coauthor Karen Matthews of the University of Pittsburgh wanted to know whether this relationship might be evident much earlier in life, in childhood and adolescence.
The research was a well-controlled longitudinal study in a racially diverse sample, “so it provides a strong clue that being socially integrated early in life is good for our health independent of a number of other factors such as personality, weight in childhood, and the family’s social status in childhood,” said Cundiff.
The researchers analyzed data from the Pittsburgh Youth Study, a longitudinal study tracking cohorts of boys who were originally recruited to participate as students in Pittsburgh public schools. Specifically, they examined data from 267 individuals in the youngest cohort, most of whom were black (about 56 percent) or white (about 41 percent).
The parents of the participants were asked to report how much time their children spent with their friends during an average week, beginning when the boys were about 6 years old and continuing through age 16.
The study also included information on various personal traits (e.g. extraversion and hostility in childhood; physical health in childhood and adulthood) and family and environmental factors (e.g., socioeconomic status in childhood, social integration in adulthood).
The findings reveal that boys who spent more time with their friends during childhood and adolescence had healthier blood pressure and body mass index at age 32. This link remained firm even after the researchers factored in other potential influences, including physical health in childhood and social integration in adulthood.
Both black and white participants showed a similar pattern of findings over time.
According to the researchers, the current study involved only one measure of social integration and did not include specific measures of physiological processes or cardiovascular function. Expanding the scope of measures used in future research could help shed light on the specific pathways that link early peer relationships with physical health decades later, according to the researchers.