“Ya got to have friends”

So sang Bette Midler in the 1970s and it turns out to be prescient for those hoping for a longer life. Health researchers report that maintaining high levels of sociability provides as much protection against early mortality as quitting smoking.

In fact, having weak social networks is a greater risk factor for dying early than being obese or sedentary. And among older adults, relationships with friends are a better predictor of good health and happiness than relations with family.

Unfortunately, social isolation is a growing epidemic, according to the New York Times. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say who say they’re lonely has doubled, from 20 percent to 40 percent. About one-third of Americans older than 65 now live alone, and half of those over 85 do.

Loneliness can also accelerate cognitive decline in older adults. Neighbors, churches, even pets are important connections but more structured programs are springing up; one is linkAges in California, a cross-generational service exchange.

The program now has hundreds of members and plans to expand to other areas of the country.

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