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Planning Retirement Online

Beyond the Headlines

January 2013


By Jeanne DavisJeanne Davis

Each month our resident writer and commentator Jeanne Davis goes behind recent news stories to comment on various ideas and subjects that have special resonance for our age group.

Written in her usual thought provoking and entertaining style, we know you will enjoy this addition every month



“A friend calms and reduces cortisol that can weaken the immune system, and in so doing may help lengthen life – in baboons, humans and other group-minded kinds.”
Joan B. Silk, primatologist, University of California, Los Angeles.

I have always been intrigued by the studies of animal behaviour and what the observations tell us about our own behaviour. Many of the findings are life affirming, some not so agreeable.

Recent research has found that in animals as diverse as African elephants and barnyard mice, blue monkeys of Kenya and feral horses of New Zealand, long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationships between females turn out to be the basic unit of social life, the force that not only binds existing groups together but explains why their ancestors formed herds in the first place.

Scientists are quantifying the benefits of that friendship. Researchers have found that female chacma baboons with strong sororal bonds have lower levels of stress hormones, live longer and rear more offspring to independence than do their less socialized peers.

Similarly, wild mares with female friends are harassed less often by stallions and have more surviving foals than do solitary mares. Female mice allowed to choose a friend as a nesting partner will bear more pups than females forced to share space with a mouse they dislike.

And female elephants keep in touch with their friends through frequent exchanges of low-pitched vocalizations called rumbles. “We liken it to an elephant cell phone,” said Joseph Soltis, a research scientist at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. “They’re texting each other, I’m over here. Where are you?”

Researchers have also determined that a female baboon with a small but devoted core of grooming companions will be less prone to spikes of the stress hormone than a female who casts her social net wide and deep.

“To have a top three seems to be what’s important here, "said Joan B. Silk, a primatologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. A trio of friends, she said, provides “the kind of strong, stable relationships that help females cope better with stress.”

FRIENDS: Quality, not Quantity

So do we need to strive for 6,000 or more Facebook friends?!

Friendships change over the years for most of us. There are the school chums, the university friends, the colleagues at work and then the parents we meet at the playground with children of the same age as our children. But as we grow older many of these friendships die their own natural death. People move away, we move.

Getting older might mean you don’t make many new friends, but maybe that’s a good thing. The payoff is that you treat them with more care.

A good friend cares as much about you as themselves. A good friend calms your anxieties, will tell you when you’re over reacting. Will be honest if that new outfit really looks awful on you. A good friend accepts you for who you are.

A good friend will make you explore new paths in life. One of my trio of friends is a friend from university days. She lives in Arizona and I see her once a year. This past November she insisted I join her on a trip to Patagonia. I was reluctant; worried that it would test me to the limits of my physical capabilities. But sailing around Cape Horn and through the Strait of Magellan in the wind, the rain and snow in the wake of the great explorers was a life-affirming experience that I would never have wanted to miss.

P.S. A tip from the blue monkeys of Kenya. Marina Cords of Columbia University in New York has spent more than 30 years studying them. She has seen many violent territorial disputes between neighbouring groups, in which the females fight while the males mostly watch. The females scream, bite, and rip the flesh of an enemy’s calf. And after the battle, “there’s a frenzy of grooming among females in the same group,” Dr. Cords says.

Through grooming, the monkeys decompress, and remind one another that their fates are still linked. After all, should a group of blue monkeys grow too large it will split into factions, and the sisterly comrades of today may become enemies tomorrow.

So even if you have a fight with friend don’t say right away that you’ll never see them again. Wait awhile and reflect and then talk it out.

You can download a version of the paper discussed above from Joan Silk's pages on the UCLA website:
Strong and consistent social bonds enhance the longevity of female baboons (Silk et al., 2010)

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