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OZY + TED: Why Girl Gangs Make for Good Health

Taylor Swift has gotten love, flak and tons of ink for her cleverly curated squad of A-list girlfriends. The pop starlet’s Instagram offers Polaroid-hued glimpses into their giggly slumber parties, late-night cooking sessions and glittery manicures. Swift captioned a recent such photo: “We are at our best when we cheer each other on and build each other up.” Whether you find her saccharine or sweet, she’s onto something, says science.

Having a girl gang is good for your health.

Research suggests female friendships have actual physical health benefits — big ones. A tightly knit group of girlfriends might lower the risk for diabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases, possibly resulting in healthier, longer lives. In a newly released TED Talk with Jane Fonda, her BFF Lily Tomlin describes female friendships as spiritual, almost romantic. That could be partly because, unlike men, who prefer a sprawling posse, women tend to form a few intimate friendships, according to a March PLOS ONE study. And we do mean intimate: One recent Hormones and Behavior study found that closeness between female college students increased progesterone levels in their saliva, which, in turn, made them more willing to risk their lives for one another. (Could spitballs be the next aphrodisiac?)

According to a landmark 2002 UCLA study that Fonda cites, women experience more than the classical “fight or flight” response to stress. Oxytocin — aka the cuddle hormone — floods their bodies, encouraging them to “tend and befriend,” or seek the company of other women. That releases even more oxytocin, which has a calming effect. The heightened levels of testosterone that men release when stressed dampens that effect; estrogen, which women make in higher amounts, seems to amplify it. Sure enough, studies hint that friendships help women weather stress, lowering their risk for disease. Scientists think stress can trigger the much-publicized immune response known as inflammation — which can be a good thing, mobilizing cells to attack bacteria or other foreign invaders. Long-term, though, stress can push inflammation into overdrive, possibly leading to heart disease, diabetes and other chronic ailments.

In a study published in Development and Psychopathology in April, researchers studied the connection between inflammation and the interpersonal relationships of more than 100 white and Asian adolescent girls. More stressful friendships during the two-and-a-half-year study period meant more inflammatory proteins in the blood — among white participants, at least. Asian participants reported drinking less alcohol, known to contribute to inflammation; that factor, among others, could have affected study results.

“Our thinking is that these social experiences are becoming embedded in how cells are responding,” says study leader Katherine Ehrlich, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University. Female bonds could even affect health at the DNA level. A 2014 Journal of Clinical Oncology study looked at two groups: breast cancer patients in a one-day stress management seminar and breast cancer patients in group programs of eight or 12 weeks in length. The patients in the long-term groups had longer telomeres, stretches of DNA that protect the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres are shorter in people with high stress levels, as well as those with cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases related to aging.

What’s more, a recent breast cancer study found that, compared with socially integrated women, socially isolated women had a whopping 34 percent higher risk of death. But the quality of their relationships mattered, too — women with small social networks and low levels of support had a 61 percent higher likelihood of dying than those with small networks and high support. That means ditch the crappy friends and focus on the real thing.

Move over, Mean Girls. Sisterhood could make you feel good, right down to your cells. Here’s to #SquadGoals.

Fonda and Tomlin on TED

Melissa Pandika

Melissa Pandika

Ozy Author

Melissa Pandika is a lab rat-turned-journalist with an eye to all things science, medicine and more. Likes distance running, snails, late-night Korean BBQ + R&B slow jams.

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Why you should care

Because friendship really can be medicine.