Having Friends Lowers Health Care Costs for Adolescents

March 24, 2014
Having Friends Results in Lower Health Care Costs for Adolescents
Reference:  Appl Health Econ Health Policy April 2014

 What good are friends?  We know in our hearts that our friends are our treasure!  Each of us has a few really good ones, and we ache to keep them close, in touch and a part of our lives.  We attend reunions with our childhood school friends, making jokes about how he have changed.  Yet we yearn for their approval and acceptance, even after all those years.  We hear anecdotes about the benefit of friendship, like Dr. Oz calling the Vitamin F.  And we have had epidemiological evidence that strong friendships reduce risk of stroke by 50%. 

If friendships are so important, why have we not had more quantitative research? Even the Mayo Clinic has a web page dedicated to the benefits of having and keeping friendships.   “Friends prevent loneliness and give you a chance to offer needed companionship, too. Friends can also: Increase your sense of belonging and purpose.  Boost your happiness and reduce your stress.  Improve your self-confidence and self-worth.  Help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one.  Encourage you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking or lack of exercise”

 Well, here is a good study I found just published this week.  Some 10,578 adolescents of various ages and backgrounds in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health were followed and evaluated by a whole host of social, medical, educational, economic and health cost measures.  This is a true statistical sample done by the best of epidemiological geeks.  They used terms like QALYs for Quality Adjusted Life Years to measure the impact of friendships down the road.  NMB stood for “net monetary benefit” of social connections.  

The question they wanted to answer was “what is the effect of peer status in school as measured by later-life health care costs”.  That’s something that can be measured objectively.   It becomes an objective measure of the health benefit of friendships. What they found is just what you would predict by the seat of your pants.   The more connected and socially engaged teens are in high school predicts their health care costs in the coming years.   Comparing disengaged teens with only 0-1 friends, compared to kids with 8 or more friends, they were able to document a societal cost of about $ 4,400 per disengaged teen. 

Having fewer friends ends up with higher health care costs.  There you have it.  This is hard research to do as it is so “squishy” and takes careful statistical study to turn subjective experience into objective science.   I would hope that this study sparks more research on this topic that may be at the core of huge health and happiness benefit.

 WWW. What will work for me.  Keeping friends takes intentional effort.  I find that scheduled activities are needed to break into the routine of lives lived in suburban homes, far apart from those we have developed caring relationships to.  So, the next time I have coffee with a friend, or hike a hike, or share a play, I’ll consider how lucky I am that they are helping me pick up my QALYs and NMBs.   Does that mean I have to pick up the bill?

Pop Quiz

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1.  Disengaged teens have fewer friends than engaged teens.  T or F                 Answer:  Duh
 2.   This paper shows that being disengaged and isolated as a teen results in higher health care costs in the next 5 years.                     Answer:  Yes.  About $ 4,400 per teen
 3.  This paper makes the connection between social isolation, connectedness and measurable health care cost.  T or F                         Answer:   True
 4.   Dr. Oz calls Friends Vitamin F. True or False                          Answer:  Ture
 5.   You have enough friends.  T or F                           Answer:  Ask youself if you have someone who would "Come to the airport to pick you up when you lost your car keys on vacation" - or some such help.
 6.   You have people from your childhood that you still cherish and remember - and would pick up with if you lived close.  T or F                       Answer:  True?  Hope so.
 7.   It's never too late to start.  Make time to do something together.  Join a club, a church.  The hiking club of Milwaukee Loves GUESTS.  Come make a friend and go hiking.

This column was written by Dr John Whitcomb at Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield Wisconsin