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by Sarah E. Adler
We love our pets — and it turns out they might be good for us, too. According to the results of a new University of Michigan-AARP poll, pet owners say their furry friends help them de-stress and stick to a routine. Pets also provide many people with a sense of purpose.
These findings are the latest from the National Poll on Healthy Aging, sponsored by AARP and Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s (U-M) academic medical center. According to the survey, 55 percent of older adults ages 50 to 80 have at least one pet. Dogs are the most popular (owned by 68 percent of respondents), followed by cats (48 percent) and then small pets such as birds, fish and hamsters (16 percent).
Regardless of which pets they own, the vast majority of owners agree that having a pet offers physical and mental benefits. Nearly 9 in 10 owners say that pets help them enjoy life and feel loved, while nearly 8 in 10 say that pets help reduce stress. About two-thirds say their pets help them stay physically active and stick to a routine.
“This study highlights the many physical, psychological and social benefits that pets can have for older adults,” says Alison Bryant, senior vice president of research for AARP.
Those benefits seem to be even more pronounced for older adults who live alone or struggle with their health, 72 percent of whom say pets help them cope with physical or emotional symptoms. Nearly half (46 percent) of older adults who say they are in fair or poor physical health report that their pets help take their mind off of pain, as do 43 percent of pet owners who live alone.
Among older adults who don’t have a pet, 42 percent cite not wanting to be tied down as the reason, while 23 percent say cost is an issue. The findings suggest that those who want to experience animal companionship without the responsibilities of pet ownership should consider pet sitting, pet therapy or volunteering at a local animal shelter as alternatives. And, Bryant says, pets are increasingly welcome at assisted living facilities in light of the health benefits they provide for residents.
“We have long known that pets are a common and naturally occurring source of support,” says Cathleen Connell, a professor at the U-M School of Public Health. “Helping older adults find low-cost ways to support pet ownership while not sacrificing other important relationships and priorities is an investment in overall mental and physical health.”
In fact, pet ownership may even benefit human relationships: 65 percent of the pet owners surveyed say that having a pet helps them connect with other people.
The poll results are based on responses from 2,051 people ages 50 to 80, with a margin of error of plus or minus 1 to 3 percentage points, higher among subgroups. The full report, along with past surveys, is available on the National Poll on Healthy Aging website.