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Keep friends close, cortisol levels low for life

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Leading a meeting, calling an old acquaintance, dictating the perfect tuna salad sandwich through a driving window. For business and pleasure, human beings are in constant communication.

Our propensity to socialize is permanent, just as important in the lives of adolescents and adults. A recent study determined the main differences in the way different age groups communicate, along with one element of conversation that stands the test of time: friendship. More specifically, the links between individuals who identify as women.

Led by former Beckman Institute postdoctoral fellows Michelle Rodrigues and Si On Yoon, an interdisciplinary team assessed the impact of speaker age and familiarity on a conversation, examining the overall effectiveness of the interaction and stress responses generated as a result.

The study, titled “What Are Friends For?” The Impact of Friendship on Communication Effectiveness and Cortisol Response in Collaborative Problem Solving in Younger and Older Women, ”was published in the Journal of Women and Aging in May 2021.

Two hypotheses form the basis of this study focused on women. First, the tend-and-befriend hypothesis, which challenges the traditionally masculine “fight or flight” dichotomy.

“Women have developed an alternative mechanism in response to stress,” said Rodrigues, who is currently an assistant professor in the department of social and cultural sciences at Marquette University. “In order to deal with stress, women can befriend their female peers.”

The team also tested the socio-emotional selectivity hypothesis, which postulates social “pruning” as humans age and pursue more intimate and better circles of friends.

The introduction of age as a variable is new in the field and stems from an interdisciplinary collaboration by Beckman.

“I was working with several different groups in several different disciplines, coming from a friendship study point of view but having researched teenage girls before, but not older women,” Rodrigues said.

She combined her strengths with Beckman’s then postdoctoral fellow Si On Yoon, who studied the cognitive mechanisms of natural conversation throughout life, including the healthy young and old.

“My research program focused on measures of language in social interactions, and I was happy to work with Dr Rodrigues to develop an integrative approach including both language processing and physiological measures to study social interactions. “said Yoon, who is currently an assistant professor. in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Iowa.

The interdisciplinary team merged the two theories into a single query: Across the lifespan of women, how are tendencies to “reach out and befriend” as well as socially select reflected in their communication?

They tested a group of 32 women: 16 “older adults” aged 62 to 79 and 16 “younger adults” aged 18 to 25. Each participant was either paired with a friend (a “familiar” conversation partner) or a stranger (“unknown”).

Partnerships underwent a series of conversational challenges, in which the participant asked their partner to arrange a set of tangrams in an order only the first could see. The trap ? Each shape was abstract, their appearances deliberately difficult to describe.

“You could watch one [tangram] and say, ‘It looks like a dog.’ Or, you could say, “It looks like a triangle, with a stop sign and a bike wheel,” Rodrigues said.

This exercise quantified the effectiveness of each conversation: partners who achieved the desired tangram arrangement in fewer words were considered more effective, and pairs who needed more words to complete the task were considered as less effective.

The researchers found that while younger adult couples communicated more effectively with familiar partners than their older counterparts, they communicated less effectively with unfamiliar partners; alternatively, the elderly displayed conversational dexterity, quickly articulating abstract tangrams to friends and strangers.

“A referential communication task like this requires you to see where the other person is coming from. It seems that young adults are a bit more reluctant to try to do this, while older adults have an easier time trying to do it. doing it with strangers, ”Rodrigues said.

This was not predicted based on the socio-emotional selectivity hypothesis, which anticipated a correlation between age and social isolation.

“Even though older people choose to spend more time with the people who matter to them, it is clear that they have the social skills to interact with strangers if and when they want to,” said Rodrigues.

Rodrigues ‘team also measured salivary cortisol to quantify and compare participants’ stress levels throughout the testing process.

“When you experience something stressful, if you have a stress response system that is working as it should, the result is a high amount of cortisol, our main stress hormone, which then tells our bodies to release glucose. in our bloodstream, ”she said. “This is reflected in our saliva about 15 to 20 minutes after feeling it. If we see an increase in salivary cortisol from an individual’s baseline levels, it indicates that they are more stressed than when they were first. previous measurements. “

In both age groups, those who worked with familiar partners consistently had lower cortisol levels than those who worked with unknown partners.

“A lot of the research on the tend-and-befriend hypothesis has only focused on young women, so it’s great to have these results pulling that into the end of life. We can see that friendship has the same effect throughout life Familiar partners and friendship alleviate stress, and this persists with age, ”said Rodrigues.


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