Women are keepers of each other's secrets, boosters of one another's wavering confidence, co-conspirators in life's adventures. Through laughter, tears and...

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Women are keepers of each other’s secrets, boosters of one another’s wavering confidence, co-conspirators in life’s adventures. Through laughter, tears and an inexhaustible river of talk, they keep each other well, and make each other better.

Across species and throughout human cultures, females have banded together for protection and mutual support. They have groomed each other, tended each other’s young, nursed each other in illness and engaged in the aimless sociability that generally has mystified male anthropologists.

But the power of girlfriends is beginning to yield its secrets to science. For women, friendship not only rules, it protects. It buffers the hardships of life’s transitions, lowers blood pressure, boosts immunity and promotes healing. It might help explain why women, on average, have lower rates of heart disease and longer life expectancies than men.

“Women are much more social in the way they cope with stress,” says Shelley E. Taylor, author of “The Tending Instinct” and a social neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Men are more likely to deal with stress with a ‘fight or flight’ reaction — with aggression or withdrawal.”

But aggression and withdrawal take a physiological toll, and friendship brings comfort that mitigates the ill effects of stress, Taylor says. That difference alone “contributes to the gender difference in longevity.”

Women’s reliance on female friends — and the benefits they see those friendships bring — crosses the lines of ethnicity, income and age.

“There’s a sense of well-being with Liza; I just feel stronger, more alive when I talk to her,” Brea, Calif., resident Susie Gonzalez, 27, says of her best friend, Liza Melendez.

To be sure, friendships profoundly affect the health of both genders, researchers say. Men and women who report loneliness die earlier, get sick more often and weather transitions with greater physical wear and tear than those who say they have a support network.

Men rely heavily on their wives to ward off the health effects of loneliness. Married men are markedly healthier and live longer than bachelors or widowers.

Married women, by contrast, are only slightly better off than unmarried women or widows when it comes to health and social support. Researchers attribute the difference to women’s greater reliance on friendships outside of marriage. These friendships make women’s support networks broader, deeper and more resilient than those of men.

“When a romantic relationship ends, a woman still has other sources of intimacy — her friends — and that provides her with another source of support,” says Beverley Fehr of the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, author of a scholarly study of friendship titled “Friendship Processes.”

When a man loses his primary female partner, says Ohio State University psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, “he’s in trouble.”

The oxytocin effect

Researchers think the hormone oxytocin is, for women especially, the elixir of friendship and, by extension, health.

The hormone was in the news a few weeks ago after a study published in the journal Nature demonstrated its power to promote irrational trust when sprayed in the nostrils of test subjects. However, the hormone is part of the normal makeup of the human body and serves a valuable purpose.

Present in men and women, oxytocin levels spike in females after childbirth and when nursing. Levels also rise at times of isolation and stress. And when the hormone interacts with estrogen, studies show, it impels females to seek the company of others.

“We call it a ‘social thermostat’ that keeps track of how well [females’] social supports are going,” Taylor says. When the thermostat reads low, females tend to reach out to others. Then oxytocin levels rise again, and with that prolonged exposure comes a distinctive “calming, warm” effect, says Taylor. “We don’t see the same mechanisms in men.”

Stacy Anderson, 36, a mother of two in Culver City, Calif., recognizes oxytocin’s effects. It’s that “wash of love” she feels when she sits down to breastfeed her baby. When she and her friend Terese Jungle leave the kids with husbands and take themselves out for an evening, there’s a special warmth as well.

The women talk about poetry and architecture and jewelry, and mimic the British-accented commentary of television naturalists while they people-watch. “We laugh a lot,” says Anderson.

By nudging women to build networks of support, oxytocin has a powerful indirect effect on their health.

At least 22 studies have shown that having social support decreases the heart-racing, blood-pressure-boosting responses that humans and other social animals have to stress and the hormones it sends surging.

When oxytocin levels are high, reactions to stress are dampened, and stress is less likely to do the kind of damage that can lead to chronic diseases such as heart disease and metabolic disorders. When oxytocin levels are high, humans and other social animals also have been shown to heal faster and better from wounds.

Researchers at Ohio State University and Carnegie Mellon University have shown that people who report strong social supports have more robust immune systems and are less likely to succumb to infectious disease. Kiecolt-Glaser, who studies friendship and health, calls social support “the most reliable” psychological indicator of immune response that has been found.

There is even evidence that the broader network of friends and support that women tend to have might protect from the effects of dementia.

A large survey of Swedes age 75 and older found in 2000 that the risk of developing dementia was lowest in men and women who maintained a wide variety of satisfying contacts with friends and relatives. The researchers surmised that the mental exercise of juggling many relationships kept the brains of those with rich social networks in tone.

The female-female factor

But are women’s friendships uniquely health-promoting? Do women glean benefits from female friends that could not be gotten from boyfriends or husbands?

Among researchers, the answer is a definite maybe. Girlfriends, however, are unanimous: The answer is yes. “With women, you can bare your soul. You don’t do that with your husband,” says Suzanne Dragge, 82, of Pasadena, Calif. She and her friend Connie Smith, 85, have counted church offerings, kidded each other and fly-fished together for almost a decade.

In fact, for women, there is some evidence that a male partner, in times of stress, can make things worse. In a study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine in 1995, German researchers found that when subjects were given a stressful task — in this case, preparing a speech — men who were joined by their female partner during preparation showed much lower stress levels than those who had no support. For women, it was a different story. When women preparing speeches were joined by their male partners, their stress hormones surged.

Taylor of UCLA surmises that findings such as this might reflect a major difference between the way men and women give support. Men’s support to a friend or partner tends to take the form of advice, she says. Women’s support more frequently comes in vaguer forms of encouragement, validation and acceptance. That, in turn, might let a woman work out her own solution to a problem, with less pressure to satisfy the expectations of her adviser.

Kiecolt-Glaser adds that differences in how men and women converse may result in large differences in their social supports.

“Women tend to talk about feelings, whereas men tend to talk about events,” she says.

As Kris Frieswick, a 41-year-old business columnist in Boston, says of self-disclosure among her circle of eight friends: “It’s what you do. … You spill.

“That’s the basis of our mutual relationship, the mutual spilling, the purging and not being judged. … These are women who accept you totally.”