Saturday, September 3, 2016

Family don't really beat friends

Family vs friends?
The first story this week, from Ariana Eunjung of the Washington Post, was published as ‘Family beat out friends in study’ in the Herald on August 29, and appears to be focused on the role of social company on mortality risk factors. After unclear reference to previous studies, the article settles on describing the work of James Iveniuk and L.Philip Schumm. Their finding, presented as somewhat counterintuitive in this story, is that there is a decreased risk of mortality within 5 years for those who felt ‘extremely close’ to family members vs those who did not. And being married has positive effects too.
That’s it.
Can I find the original research?
If so, 2 questions:
1.       Is it true that family is more important than friends according to their findings?
2.       What age groups are we talking about?

First shock: this story is all over the internet. Over 1000 hits on Google immediately but it’s hard to get to the source because of all the news sites and blogs that are carrying it. Looks like it came from a press release from the American Sociological Association and has been handled awkwardly ever since. I don’t have a full paper so details may be missing, but it looks serious. To answer my questions
1.        Is it true that family is more important than friends (according to their findings)?
I think the answer is yes and no but only the author can clarify this. When you think about it, it’s a strange comparison to make, and one that I doubt the authors intended. Instead, it seems that the comparisons should be made within rather than across relationship type. So it’s not that, if you could choose, you should take family with you into old age and ditch the friends. Instead, it’s that if your relationships with family are close then you’re less likely to die than if your relationships with family are distant. The same effect isn’t seen with friends. But I’m not sure about the concept of a distant friend, so perhaps the nature of friendship is so different that it’s not worth comparing. I don’t think it’s counterintuitive at all.
2.       What age groups are we talking about?
In the first wave in 2005/6, they were 57-85 years old. Big age range. I wonder if there were differences in the effects…

Take home message? I’d rather hear the author talking about it than the media. It’s another study of many that show that social networks are important for us as we get older. And it’s interesting that close relationships with family might be really special in keeping us alive. It’s a shame that most of the reporting of this chose to make family and friends compete with each other, because that’s not the right story, and that obscures the important question of how relationships with family members keep us alive or send us to an early grave!

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