Anyone who’s ever made room for a big milestone of adult life–a job, a marriage, a move–has likely shoved a friendship to the side. After all, there is no contract locking us to the other person, as in marriage, and there are no blood bonds, as in family. Friendships are flexible. “We choose our friends, and our friends choose us,” says William K. Rawlins, Stocker Professor of Communication Studies at Ohio University. “That’s a really distinctive attribute of friendships.”
But modern life can become so busy that people forget to keep choosing each other. That’s when friendships fade, and there’s reason to believe it’s happening more than ever. Loneliness is on the rise, and feeling lonely has been found to increase a person’s risk of dying early by 26%–and to be even worse for the body than obesity and air pollution. Loneliness wreaks health havoc in many ways, particularly because it removes the safety net of social support. “When we perceive our world as threatening, that can be associated with an increase in heart rate and blood pressure,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University and author of the recent study linking loneliness to mortality. Over time, she says, these effects can lead to hypertension, which increases risk for cardiovascular disease.
The antidote is simple: friendship. It helps protect the brain and body from stress, anxiety and depression. “Being around trusted others, in essence, signals safety and security,” says Holt-Lunstad. A study last year found that friendships are especially beneficial later in life. Having supportive friends in old age was a stronger predictor of well-being than family ties–suggesting that the friends you pick may be at least as important as the family you’re born into.
Easy as the fix may sound, it can be difficult to keep and make friends as an adult. But research suggests that you only need between four and five close pals. If you’ve ever had a good one, you know what you’re looking for. “The expectations of friends, once you have a mature understanding of friendship, don’t really change across the life course,” Rawlins says. “People want their close friends to be someone they can talk to, someone they can depend upon and someone they enjoy.”
If you’re trying to replenish a dried-up friendship pool, start by looking inward. Think back to how you met some of your very favorite friends. Volunteering on a political campaign or in a favorite spin class? Playing in a band? “Friendships are always about something,” says Rawlins. Common passions help people bond at a personal level, and they bridge people of different ages and life experiences.
Whatever you’re into, someone else is too. Let your passion guide you toward people. Volunteer, for example, take a new course or join a committee at your local religious center. If you like yoga, start going to classes regularly. Fellow dog lovers tend to congregate at dog runs. Using apps and social media–like Facebook to find a local book club–is also a good way to find simpatico folks.
Once you meet a potential future friend, then comes the scary part: inviting them to do something. “You do have to put yourself out there,” says Janice McCabe, associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College and a friendship researcher. “There’s a chance that the person will say no. But there’s also the chance they’ll say yes, and something really great could happen.”
The process takes time, and you may experience false starts. Not everyone will want to put in the effort necessary to be a good friend.
Which is reason enough to nurture the friendships you already have–even those than span many miles. Start by scheduling a weekly phone call. “It seems kind of funny to do that, because we often think about scheduling as tasks or work,” says McCabe. “But it’s easy, especially as an adult, to lose track of making time for a phone call.” When a friend reaches out to you, don’t forget to tell them how much it means to you.
It’s never too late to start being a better pal. The work you put into friendships–both new and old–will be well worth it for your health and happiness.
This appears in the February 26, 2018 issue of TIME.