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Friendship is a key to living a long, healthy life. Here’s how to make and sustain them in middle age

Feeling lonely can harm people's physical and mental health as they age.
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In many ways, it’s easier to make friends when you’re a child, as kids meet in the classroom, on the playground, or through a recreational sports team—the opportunities seem endless. 

Fast-forward to adulthood, when forging platonic relationships becomes trickier than finding a like-minded pal to play tag with at recess. Sure, there might be your post-grad roommates or close colleagues, but at some point, maintaining friendships takes a backseat. 

Many middle-aged adults are essentially swimming against the tide trying to keep up with caregiving and job responsibilities, and find one day that they haven’t prioritized new friendships or nourished old ones. 

“As we approach middle age, we have found ourselves busy,” says Dr. Marc Schulz, coauthor of The Good Life and associate director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. “Some people wake up and realize that they really need to rebuild their friendship connections…a lot of their social connections may revolve just around work, or just around other sorts of activities that their kids do.” 

Older adults may also grieve the loss of past friendships, making them fearful and closed off to new opportunities, says Dr. Nina Vasan, a psychiatrist and the chief medical officer at Real, a mental health support app. 

As a result, they may ask themselves if making friends “at this stage” of life even matters, Vasan tells Fortune

But research shows that the effort is definitely worth it—even if it’s scary to be so vulnerable.

“If we don’t attend to our relationships, if we just assume that we can leave them on automatic pilot, they tend to wither,” Schulz tells Fortune. “We want to have those connections and that source of joy and pleasure that we get by being with friends.” 

Friendships improve our mental and physical health 

In a long-term happiness study that began at Harvard University in 1938, one factor was indubitably significant: relationships. 

When people did prioritize relationships throughout their life, they reported feeling more satisfied—particularly when they said they could call someone in an emergency in the middle of the night, the study found. Relationships also kept them healthier and protected them from loneliness. 

Still, many people are reluctant to do the work required to maintain friendships.

“We seem particularly bad at forecasting the benefits of relationships,” Schulz and coauthor Dr. Robert Waldinger write in their book. “A big part of this is the obvious fact that relationships can be messy and unpredictable. This messiness is some of what prompts many of us to prefer being alone.” 

But being alone is bad for your health—very bad. About one in four seniors over age 65 is socially isolated, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reports, which increases the risk for heart disease and early mortality. Isolation is also associated with a 50% increased risk for dementia. A recent study found that satisfying relationships lowered women’s risk for multiple chronic conditions, and that the more satisfying relationships became, the lower their risk. As loneliness affects seniors more drastically—those who are living alone, grieving, or going through major life changes—it becomes imperative to prioritize friendships through adulthood. 

“Persistent loneliness can really lead to significant mental and physical repercussions,” Vasan says. 

So how can older adults maintain friendships? 

Take a risk and be bold, Schulz says. People often avoid reaching out to a distant friend out of fear of rejection. 

“We have a voice in our head that tells us people aren’t as interested in us as we are at them, or they’re not going to have time for me, or maybe they won’t remember me,” he says. “We tend to overestimate the negative.”

If you want to rekindle a friendship, don’t be afraid to send a brief message. “Thinking about you. Hoping we can talk soon,” shows the other person you care and are invested in finding time to reconnect. Once you reestablish the connection, seize the opportunity, Schulz says.  

Schedule a 10-minute phone call, and by the end, instead of saying you hope to hang out soon, intentionally make a plan. Start small—grabbing a cup of coffee before work—and work up to hanging out more regularly in a way that feels natural, he says. 

Remember that it takes time for people to feel comfortable, and it’s okay if friendships don’t bounce right back to where they started. 

How can older adults make new friends? 

Looking to find new friends to add to the mix? Seeking out enriching communities is a place to start, Vasan says. Mentoring or volunteering can help connect older adults with new people. And friendships can flourish regardless of age. Intergenerational friendships can teach everyone something new.

“The trick to making new friends is putting yourself in situations where you’ll repeatedly have contact with other people,” Schulz says. Practice giving someone your full attention and learning from them, which can take the pressure off bonding right at the outset. 

Trying a new hobby can also help older adults find new friendships.

“It can be as simple as asking a new team to play pickleball with at the courts, signing up for a language course you want to learn, or joining a program you’re passionate about,” says Jenn Lim, author of Beyond Happiness: How Authentic Leaders Prioritize Purpose and People for Growth and Impact, who emphasizes adopting a beginner’s mindset: “You’ll find there’s a greater chance your values and sense of purpose are aligned too.”

It’s never too late to start something new, and bonding over a shared passion and interest can help cultivate a relationship. Make it routine. 

“Some of us underestimate how much intention plays a role in building friendships,” Danielle Bayard Jackson, friendship coach and author of the forthcoming book Fighting for Our Friendships, previously told Fortune. “This creates what we call familiar strangers—people you see all the time—and now it becomes less intimidating for me to go up and compliment your shoes or ask you a question about the venue we’re in because we see each other all the time.”

And don’t be afraid to ask for help, Vasan says. Being open and honest about feeling lonely and wanting to make a change gives other people a chance to look out for opportunities for you. Consider telling your older children you wish to seek new fulfilling relationships, if that applies. Maybe they will keep their eyes peeled for community groups, events, and ways to get you connected, she says. 

“It’s okay to say ‘I’m lonely, and I really want to try to meet new people,’” Vasan says.  

And putting yourself out there is half the battle, Schulz says.

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