Almost a quarter of households in the UK own a dog and while anyone with a dog knows the joy that ownership can bring, there is mounting evidence that our four legged friends really can make us healthier and happier, with some of the greatest benefits seen amongst older people. Research at Michigan University has shown that when those aged over 65 keep a pet such as a dog they need to make 30% fewer appointments with their doctor compared to their counterparts without a pet. Here we consider how having a dog can lead to improved physical and mental health for people in their later years.
Physical benefits of exercise
The health benefits of regular exercise amongst older adults is well documented and research shows that this is one of the best ways to preservephysical health and extend life expectancy. Daily walks with your dog are an obvious way to boost fitness, as well as bringing down blood pressure and cholesterol, which are often raised amongst the older population. In fact, dog owners are also more likely to survive a heart attack, which remains one of the biggest killers in many developed countries. However, exercise with your pet does more than boost the health of your heart and lungs; your joints, bones and immune system benefit too, which can all be weakened by old age. Walking each day can help to keep your joints supple, benefiting anyone irrespective of whether they have arthritis; this is one of the most common health problems affecting older adults. At the same time regular weight bearing exercise maintains bone density, helping to ward off osteoporosis, which affects one in three women as they age. Our immune system is also strengthened by moderate exercise, which reduces vulnerability to infections and cancer, both of which are more prevalent amongst the elderly.
Positive impact on anxiety and mood
Anxiety is increasingly diagnosed amongst older adults and may occur as a consequence of a medical problem such as dementia, or relate to isolation or difficulties in managing all that they once were able to. Pets can be one way in which people can manage anxiety and complement more traditional therapies. For instance, it has been demonstrated that someone with Alzheimer’s disease is less likely to be anxious if they have a pet at home. However, it’s well documented that dog ownership can also help to reduce the impact of stress, which itself can lead to feelings of anxiety. Petting a dog has been shown to reduce levels of cortisol and noradrenaline – two of the stress hormones – as well as lowering blood pressure; caring for a dog for a 3 month period led to significant fall in blood pressure. As well as reducing these negative factors, stroking a dog triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin, which lead to feelings of calm.
These two feel good hormones work alongside oxytocin, which has been shown to be released through just spending half an hour with your dog, to combat problems with low mood; this could certainly benefit the quarter of older adults with depression sever enough to require treatment. Another way in which dog ownership is thought to benefit mood is through the way in which it helps to distract us from other things that we might have on our mind. It can additionally help to add routine to someone’s day, which after retirement can sometimes feel empty, and can be a contributing factor to reduced mental well-being.
According to Age UK around 3.8 million older people live alone, which can lead to feelings of isolation, particularly when family do not live close by or they have lost close friends. In these situations owing a dog provides companionship, but also encourages them to get out and about each day, which is a great opportunity to interact with people in their communities; you are more likely to see your neighbours and it is easy to strike up a conversation with other dog walkers. As such, a dog can help to increase the quality of life for an older person living alone.
Author: Jenny Hart