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Boost Your Immune Function By Calling An Old Friend

Reconnecting with old friends during COVID-19

As I write this, one of my college housemates, a cardiologist in Miami, has been sick with COVID-19 and on a ventilator for almost a month. He is showing signs of improvement but it’s been really slow, nail-biting progress.

While this is of course a terrible a circumstance, one of the blessings that has come out of it has been the opportunity to reconnect with my 6 other housemates, several of whom I’ve not seen for more than 10 years. We had a great Zoom call this last weekend, with prayers and worry broken up by laughter and fun memories.

While maintaining relationships has never been something I’ve been good at, right now I’m encouraged to be on the lookout for other opportunities to re-establish old friendships or family bonds.

Immune function and social connections

Perhaps because of this, an older study caught my eye this week. Published in 1997, researchers actively placed cold virus in the noses of 276 healthy volunteers, and measured how many of them got sick. The main conclusion of the study was that the greater the number of social connections the volunteer had, the lower the risk of developing a cold. That is, more social connections seemed to boost immune function.

Interestingly, there’s a growing body of science linking our immune function and our mental and emotional health. For example, people who watch humorous videos for 1 hour have an increase in the killing activity of a type of white blood cells called NK cells. (For a more detailed description of the science, see here.) Suffice it to say, positive emotions tend to increase our immune function, and negative emotions do the opposite.

Humans are meant for connection

The Harvard Health Study, one of the longest running studies of all time, has followed Harvard graduates (and later other Boston natives) for 80 years, and has demonstrated the benefit of strong relationships.

Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School said, “The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health.” He has a great TED talk if you’d like to hear more.

It’s a great time to reach out

Here’s a question for you this week. Have you recently thought about anyone you’ve not spoken to or seen for a long time? Or perhaps you know someone you’ve been meaning to call for some time?

Let me encourage you to act on these thoughts. Pick up the phone. Send a text. Even better, get on FaceTime or Zoom. When I was a kid we’d sit around imagining what it would be like if we had a phone that allowed us to see each other. We have that now! Use it!

Today I spent an hour on FaceTime with a cousin I’ve not spoken to in over a decade. He and I spent 6 weeks together riding the trains through Europe when we were 18, and had some great adventures together. I don’t know why we’ve not spoken in so long, but it was really great to catch up, and we’ve pledged to stay in touch.

And maybe my immune system is a little bit stronger for it. That wouldn’t be a bad thing in this time.


Dr. Topher Fox

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