Monkey friendship

Making a call to an old friend may be the healthiest part of your day today. We know social contact is important to health, but could it add years to our lives? A new study on baboons provides more evidence in support of the link between friendship and long life.

University of California anthropologist Joan Silk and colleagues studied female chacma baboons at a game reserve in Botswana. Between 2001-2007, each baboon’s regular grooming partners were identified and monitored. The researchers found that baboons who maintained the same partners over time lived longer than those who frequently switched companions.

Additionally, it was determined that frequent instances of mutual grooming among baboons with close bonds had a stronger impact on longevity than social status. Female baboons of higher rank typically outlive other females because of increased access to food resources. It seems lower-ranking females can offset their disadvantage, however, through stable, supportive relationships. This tells us that keeping old friends, rather than making new ones, is more likely to boost longevity. Results were published online July 1 in Current Biology.

What about the boy baboons? Because male chacma baboons always compete with each other for mates, they never groom each other. In other baboon species, however, males do engage in mutual grooming. For these baboons, they probably do experience health benefits as a result of “guy time”.

The scientists aren’t sure how friendships help female baboons live longer, but they suspect it’s because the most consistent grooming partners experience less stress. We know that having a solid network of friends helps humans reduce the impact of stress. Friendship benefits both our emotional and physical well-being, and this is true for people of any gender. When dealing with illness or trauma, an encouraging friend provides hope, which in turn increases our levels of immune system functioning.

Friends also provide a sense of belonging. Reaching out to others is a natural inclination that may have some evolutionary history, according to the baboon study. Without social support, we are more likely to experience depression and compromise our longevity. Having a buddy system is one way to keep stress from being a monkey on your back.