Friends Lower Cortisol Levels, Says Study

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A female-focused study has found that communications between female friends help decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol for a lifetime.

What are friends for? Conversations, hangouts, a shoulder to cry on, and sometimes just someone to just sit within silence together. But that’s not all. According to a recent study, communications with female friends can decrease cortisol levels for women across a lifespan. The study investigated the effects of age and familiarity on conversations, and the impact of the interactions on cortisol reactivity.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress and low blood-glucose concentrations. The hormone helps regulate metabolism, control blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation, and prepares the body for the fight-or-flight response. In stressful situations, high cortisol levels can suppress the immune system and other body systems.

Researchers Michelle Rodrigues and Si On Yoon at Marquette University recruited a total of 32 women. Half of them were classified as ‘older adults’ (aged 62-79) and the other half labelled as ‘younger adults’ (aged 18-25). Their study investigated a single question: Across women’s lifespans, how are the tendencies to “tend and befriend” as well as socially select reflected in their communication?

Women have evolved an alternative mechanism in response to stress. In order to deal with stress, women can befriend female peers.

Professor Michelle Rodrigues, study author

The team paired participants with either a friend (a ‘familiar’ conversation partner) or a stranger (‘unfamiliar’). They then underwent a series of conversational challenges that tested their conversation’s efficiency. As part of the challenge, participants had to instruct their partner to arrange a set of tangrams in an order only the former could see. But researchers used abstract tangram shapes which made their appearances difficult to describe. Efficient partners used fewer words to arrange the tangrams and complete the task.

Familiarity Equals Efficient Communication

Results showed that compared to older adults, the younger group had more efficient communication with familiar partners than unfamiliar partners. However, older adults completed the tasks with equal proficiency, regardless of familiarity. Thus, demonstrating that older age groups have an easier time communicating with strangers.

Participants in the study were challenged to articulate “easy” tangram shapes (left) as well as “difficult,” more abstract configurations (right).

The team of researchers also measured salivary cortisol levels and compared them to participants’ stress levels. Participants paired with familiar partners had lower cortisol levels than those working strangers. Moreover, study authors observed lowered sortisol levels across both age groups.

A lot of the research on the tend-and-befriend hypothesis has only focused on young women, so it’s great to have these results that pull that out to the end of life. We can see that friendship has that same effect throughout the lifespan. Familiar partners and friendship buffer stress, and that’s preserved with age

Professor Michelle Rodrigues, study author


Rodrigues MA, Yoon SO, Clancy KBH, Stine-Morrow EAL. What are friends for? The impact of friendship on communicative efficiency and cortisol response during collaborative problem solving among younger and older women. Journal of Women & Aging. 2021;0(0):1-17. doi:10.1080/08952841.2021.1915686


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