Here’s something we doubt that your regular doctor will prescribe for what ails you – but it might not be such a bad idea. If you’re looking for a way to get more exercise, lower your blood pressure and improve your outlook as you age, maybe you should consider getting a dog.
This recent article on the website NextAvenue confirms what many people have long suspected: there are measurable emotional and health benefits to people 50 and older from owning a pet. The article focuses primarily on dogs, but other pets including cats, birds and fish seem to provide health benefits, too. Still, dogs bring special benefits because they tend to love their owners unconditionally and they need to be walked every day, often multiple times, which gets the dog owner off the couch and out of the house, rain or shine.
“Dogs are especially important for the 50 and over group,” says the NextAvenue article. “They keep people connected to their communities and keep them on the move, a vital part of staying healthy into the later years. And research shows that having a dog promotes walking, considered the best form of exercise for people in this age group.” One 60-year-old woman quoted in the article says she may be tired when she gets home to her two dogs in her otherwise-empty house, but “the dogs stare at her until she puts their leashes on.” She said she always feels better after having taken her dogs out for a brisk evening walk.
At the University of Missouri Veterinary College, professionals like nurse gerontologist Rebecca Johnson study the interaction between humans and animals. She’s a strong advocate for pet ownership among seniors. “It’s vitally important to stay as physically active as possible, not only from the point of view of preventing illness, but also because of the social benefits,” Johnson says. “Dog owners are less likely to have loneliness and depression than those who don’t. And when they interact with a dog on a walk, it draws them into the moment and they forget their aches and pains.”
It sounds like common sense to suggest that owning a dog or other pet is beneficial because a pet gets the owner out into the fresh air for some much-needed exercise. But owning a pet brings other surprising benefits as well. One striking example, according to NextAvenue, is the remarkable finding that those seniors who own dogs and cats can actually lower their risk of coronary heart disease, which is the most common cause of death for those over 60. This may be because, as the American Heart Association has found, pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure and lower resting heart rates. They are also measurably less affected by stress and they tend to recover from stressful situations more rapidly. One University of Maryland study even showed that patients who owned pets were more likely than non-pet-owners to survive a heart attack! Man’s best friend indeed.
The NextAvenue article also points out the emotional benefits of owning a pet – again, especially a dog. Seniors can find themselves alone for the first time in many years after their children move away and a spouse either dies or leaves following a divorce. Having a dog keeps people from facing tough times alone. Dog owners may find themselves going on “community dog walks” that combine exercise with sociability – a great antidote to loneliness. There are also many examples of a loving pet helping people through chemotherapy or post-surgical recovery. This is one reason why therapy dogs have become so popular, visiting nursing homes, rehab clinics, even housebound seniors.
We encourage you, especially if you’re a pet-lover, to read the NextAvenue article. It just may give you a host of new reasons to visit a pet shelter near you and invite a new four-legged friend (or a bird, or even a fish) into your home and your heart. Then when you’re searching for that perfect retirement community, you may need to add “Pet Friendly” to your list of must-have qualities.
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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)