People who are looking to stay well as they age may want to adopt a pet, according to new data from the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging.
For the survey, researchers polled about 2,000 U.S. adults from ages 50 to 80. Fifty-five percent said they owned at least one pet. Dogs were the most common pet, followed by cats and small animals, such as birds and hamsters. But no matter the type of animal, the vast majority of owners said their pets boosted their mental and physical health.
Nearly 90% of older pet owners said their animals helped them enjoy life and feel loved; roughly 80% said their pets reduced stress; and almost three-quarters said their furry friends provided a sense of purpose, according to the poll. In addition, 64% of pet owners — and 78% of dog owners — said their pets helped them stay physically active. Sixty percent also said their pets helped them cope with physical and emotional health issues.
People did report a few drawbacks to pet ownership, including difficulty traveling or leaving the house (54%) and financial strains (18%). Six percent of pet owners said they’d fallen or injured themselves as a result of having a pet — consistent with a recent study finding rising rates of fractures among elderly dog owners. Fifteen percent of pet owners, including 26% of those who said they were in fair or poor health, said their pet’s health took precedence over their own.
Still, plenty of research has shown that just about anyone can benefit from their pet, since animals can lower stress, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and encourage physical activity. The new poll suggests that pet ownership may be especially impactful for older adults, given how common loneliness and social isolation are within this age group.
Human social support comes with a host of health benefits — less stress, lower rates of chronic disease and more — and research shows that interacting with pets can bring many of the same benefits. (Animals may even serve as a catalyst for human friendships, since they often get caretakers out in the community, research shows.) If owning a pet isn’t an option for some animal lovers, the report’s authors recommend volunteering at an animal shelter, arranging pet therapy visits or pet-sitting.