(CNN) -- A small group of salt-and-pepper haired women who live outside Jackson, Mississippi, meet every other Tuesday at the local antique store for their M.E.N.S.A. gathering. The Most Exclusive National Shopping Association has met consistently for the past three years, but some of its members have been close for more than 50.
Margaret Collins Jenkins, 58, is president. Nita Gilmore is treasurer. Ouida Muffuletto is secretary. It's her job to read the minutes of the meeting and take notes. The women came up with the M.E.N.S.A. acronym years ago by throwing around words until something fit. After shopping, when the meeting ends, the 10-15 member group goes to dinner.
Though Jenkins says the group laughs and carries on, this is more than just a club. These women work to preserve the friendships they've cultivated over a lifetime.
"Having friends that extend over decades, they more or less know your history. They know your ins and outs and ups and downs of your life," Jenkins said. "That just makes us be able to build each other up. Those friends that know your history, they can't be replaced."
The group's shared experiences are what sustain them through life changes like child rearing, divorce and death. And they're key elements to building a sense of community and a healthy lifestyle, experts say.
Dr. James House, from the University of Michigan, has researched the health benefits of meaningful relationships. He says a lack of social interactions is predictive of poor health and earlier death for most people. House contends that keeping in contact with others is likely to regulate a person's own behaviors so that it becomes harder to slip into poor health habits.
The M.E.N.S.A. ladies strive to stay active and connected. One snapshot can convey decades of camaraderie: That weekend trip to New Orleans. Those painting sessions, loosely referred to as art lessons. Christmas spent dressed as elves.
This particular set of Southern belles didn't meet on Facebook. Their connections to each other happened over time. Some of the women work together as teachers; others go to the same church. A few are neighbors.
Sherry Downs, 57, says she relies on her closest friends to carry her through life's twists and turns, big and small.
"We confide in each other about everything and we value each others' opinions," Downs says. "I just about won't take a step without asking one of them, 'Which way do I go?'"
Jenkins, a school teacher who moved into the community nearly 40 years ago, says she's been able to rely on her longtime confidants during the darkest periods of her life.
"I went through a divorce. They were there, so sturdy and so dependable in every way," she says. "Did they stop including me in the group? No. They included me and made a special effort to make me not feel like the third wheel. I never was left out. They supported me not only in words but in their actions."
As we age, we begin to feel liberated from past patterns and habits, says Rebecca G. Adams, a sociology and gerontology professor and expert on friendship at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Markers of aging, such as retirement or widowhood, trigger a period of transition, change and redirection. After raising children and devoting time to building careers, Adams says, there is a reinvestment in what one feels is important, such as dear friendships.
"Like anything you do in life, it requires work," Jenkins says. "A lot of people I think wonder why they don't have those kinds of friends, and it's because it takes work."