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Healh Lead“Lean on me when you’re not strong,
And I’ll be your friend,
I’ll help you carry on,
For it won’t be long,
Til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on”.

Come Valentine’s Day, the lyrics of Bill Withers’ 1972 classic Lean On Me, which emphasise friendship, could not be more apt: recent studies have highlighted the health benefits of breaking through the stereotype that the day is reserved only for romantic relationships.

Research conducted at the Centre for Ageing Studies, Flinders University, Australia, last month revealed that people who have an extended circle of friends and express their care and concern towards their loved ones, increase their chances of hitting the 60-year milestone by almost 22%.

According to psychologists, this is primarily due to the fact that spending time thinking about others, be it going out to buy a special gift for your best friend or calling your parents just to tell them how important they still are, triggers the release of ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters in the body. Therefore, therapists encourage people suffering from clinical depression and bipolar disorders to go shopping for family and friends to mark occasions such as Valentine’s Day, even if you end up buying the most clichéd gifts of roses or chocolates.

David Spiegel, Professor of Psychiatry, Stanford University, states that spending time with friends, whether you are single or not, is crucial in helping you face adverse events as they provide material aid, emotional support and honest advice to help deal with life’s constant stressors, be they challenging projects at work, financial troubles or rough patches in your personal life. Constant companionship boosts your self-esteem, wards off depression and even reduces the intensity of pain you feel by lowering your cortisol – ‘stress hormone’ – levels.

So this Valentine’s Day, do not hold back in telling your loved ones what a difference they make in your life.

– Dr Waqar Saeed
The writer is a physician.

First published in the Health Section of the DAWN National Weekend Advertiser on February 8, 2015.