If you’re already an “animal person,” you’re probably aware of all the benefits pet ownership brings. Dogs can be partners in adventure, snuggle buddies and a source of unconditional love. Cats are our benevolent overlords — offering equal parts affection and casual disdain — but their goofy antics and purring bodies can bring joy to just about anyone.

Many people don’t need much convincing to become pet owners, but for those on the fence, we’ve rounded up the latest studies about pets and their impact on aging, giving us even more reasons to invite these fur babies into our homes. 

Pets and Our Mental Health

Pets Might Prevent Cognitive Decline: In a study among adults 50 and older, researchers found that pet ownership was associated with slower rates of decline in verbal memory and verbal fluency. They also found that owning a pet offset the rate of decline often associated with living alone, meaning that having a pet showed similar cognitive benefits as having a human companion. Although these researchers admit that further studies are needed to assess and confirm these findings, we only need our own anecdotal data to know that animals can sometimes be better communicators than people, anyway.

In a different study, researchers looked at the impact of long-term pet ownership on our cognitive health. Responders aged 65 and up who owned a pet for more than five years demonstrated higher composite cognitive scores and higher immediate and delayed word recall scores than non-pet owners. Again, researchers emphasize the need for further study — for instance, the jury is still out on whether it’s having a pet that makes people smarter, or if it’s just that smarter people are more likely to have pets. We’re a fan of both possibilities.

Pets May Prevent Loneliness: According to this article in the National Library of Medicine, approximately 40% of adults aged 65 years and older report being lonely at least part of the time, while 5%-15% report frequent loneliness. Older adults who report feelings of loneliness are at an increased risk for a range of negative physical and mental health outcomes, including coronary heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and depression. In one study, researchers found that pet owners were 36% less likely than non-pet owners to report loneliness. 

Pets and Our Physical Health

Pets don’t just make us feel better emotionally and psychologically; they also trick us into staying active. Dogs are the most commonly reported animals associated with an increase in physical activity, due to greater social support, increased motivation to exercise and the sense of responsibility associated with caring for a dog. (Not noted in the official studies: whether increased physical activity was due to the sad faces they make while sitting by the door.)

Dogs Motivate Owners to Get More Exercise: The CDC recommends 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity for people 65 and up, which averages to about 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. According to the Michigan Behavioral Risk Factor Survey, which is conducted annually, approximately 60% of dog owners meet this criteria on a regular basis. 

Pets Can Help Reduce Cardiovascular Problems: According to a comprehensive paper on human-animal interaction and older adults, pet ownership is associated with lower blood pressure, lower heart rate and faster recovery during periods of mental stress. One study referenced in the paper demonstrated a link between pet ownership and long-term survival in patients who had experienced a myocardial infarction, while another study linked pet ownership to improving ambulatory blood pressure in hypertensive older adults. The American Heart Association also issued a scientific statement suggesting that owning pets (particularly dogs) may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, noting varying levels of evidence for a link between pet ownership and improved outcomes regarding:

  • Systemic hypertension;
  • Hyperlipidemia;
  • Physical activity;
  • Obesity;
  • Autonomic function; and
  • Cardiovascular activity.

Lest you think these cardiovascular benefits are just for dog owners, however, it’s worth noting that the Human Animal Bond Research Institute reports that people without cats have a 40% higher relative risk of heart attack compared to cat owners. (Of course, they clearly didn’t factor in the number of times cats trigger metaphorical heart attacks, when they bring something they shouldn’t into the house and deposit it at your feet.)

Top image by SeventyFour from Getty Images, via Canva.com

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