Why having friends of all ages is good for your health

Key findings

  • Loneliness and social isolation are linked to mental and physical problems, especially for people over 50.
  • Having friends of different ages can do more than prevent loneliness; it helps us learn new skills and makes us more open-minded.

Three groups are most at risk of loneliness, according to the UK Community Living Survey:

  • Widowed elderly homeowners living alone with long-term health problems
  • Unmarried middle-aged adults with long-term health problems
  • Younger people who are renting and may not feel like part of the community

Here’s a solution that almost looks like too convenient: What if these groups become friends?

According to research published late last year, making friends with someone from a different generation is an effective way to curb loneliness. It helps broaden perspectives, expand support networks and ultimately increase social inclusion.

It’s a strategy that works for Arianna Tao, a 24-year-old who recently started law school at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.

“During the pandemic, I actually felt very comfortable being alone, but now that I’m in a big, new city without a support system, sometimes I feel really lonely,” Tao told Verywell.

After joining a volunteer nonprofit organization called Freedom, Inc. in neighboring Wisconsin, she began spending time with women 10, 20, and 30 years her senior. They soon became her mentors, her support system and her friends.

“Being in my 20s is like being in the trenches,” she said. “I’m still building my life and a lot of people around me who are the same age are doing the same things and feeling the same way. But my older friends are not. They offer confidence that I can do this.

For Kimberly Vue, a 27-year-old academic advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, making friends with colleagues in her 40s helped her find her groove in a job where she initially felt isolated and like an imposter.

“As a first-generation professional, there was so much I didn’t know, like understanding work culture, work-life balance, and how to handle conflict. It felt like I was starting from scratch,” Vue told Verywell.

Her work friends assured her they felt the same way.

“Being able to talk about these things with my older friends validates my experiences and calms me down,” she said. “I think I really needed that at such a pivotal time in my life, especially being part of an immigrant family where my parents didn’t offer that source of older wisdom.”

Intergenerational friendships are mutually beneficial

While Tao and Wue value the life experiences and advice shared by their older friends, the benefits go both ways.

“As we age, we may feel more lonely if we don’t make an effort to stay engaged in activities and connected to people,” Neda Gould, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in medicine, told Verywell via email.

When older people, in particular, befriend someone from the younger generation, they’re more likely to learn new skills and be more outgoing, Gould said.

Tao believes she has offered her older friends a new perspective on culture.

“We will have in-depth conversations where I present new perspectives on sex positivity, generational trauma, and perspectives based on race,” she said. “I was able to shed light on some of their children’s experiences and offer advice based on what I was going through as an emerging adult.”

Why loneliness is a health problem

While loneliness can be linked to health problems such as depression at any age, adults over 50 are also at higher risk of health problems that can be worsened by the burden of loneliness and social isolation, including dementia, heart disease, stroke and even premature death.

This makes the social connectivity stakes higher over time.

The important thing is that loneliness and social isolation are not the same thing, Diane Meyer, MD, professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told Verywell. Loneliness refers to feeling alone despite how many social interactions you have, while social isolation is a lack of interactions in the first place, usually measured over the course of a day or week.

Postmenopausal women may be at particularly high risk of health complications related to loneliness and isolation. A study published in JAMA Network Open in February showed that among almost 58,000 women followed over eight years, social isolation was associated with an 8% increase in cardiovascular disease, while loneliness was associated with a 5% increase.

Among women who said they had both, the risk of heart disease was 13% to 27% higher than those with low loneliness and isolation scores.

Additional studies show that loneliness can double the risk of type 2 diabetes. and lead to significantly worse outcomes in patients with heart failure.

“It’s very clear that human contact is essential to health,” Meyer said. “We need to think about socializing and being with people in much the same way that we think about healthy eating and exercise.”

Meier describes the prevalence of both loneliness and social isolation among older adults as a relatively recent phenomenon related to a more mobile population and younger generations moving away from home.

“From an evolutionary perspective of our species, living in intergenerational groups is normal,” she said.

She thinks friendship between generations is also normal.

“Regardless of age, everyone is just human; you are no less human at 75 than you were at 25,” Meyer said. “We have to learn to see that we’re all human and we’re all in this together. Age is simply a characteristic such as height, weight or eye color.

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