Who rescued who?

If you have a dog, there’s a chance you rescued them from a shelter. As your dog benefits from your care, did you know they’re also helping you? There are myriad health advantages of dog ownership. The most compelling being a 2019 Journal of Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes meta-analysis that showed dog ownership was associated with a 24% risk reduction of death from any cause. And individuals living alone gain the most from it. ​

Here are six factors that predict successful aging and longevity aided by owning a dog: 

  1. Greater sense of purpose: Caring for others, even a pet, provides a sense of purpose. An NIH-funded study published in December 2014 in The Gerontologist found that individuals who expressed that they had something to get up for in the morning lived longer and were sharper than those who didn’t. Read our The Power of Purpose post for more information about how purpose extends life.
  2. Increased social connection: Dogs ownership promotes more social connections as a neighborhood walk or outing to the dog park sparks conversions and builds community. Robert Waldinger, the Harvard Study of Adult Development’s fourth director, concludes in his viral TED talk, What Makes a Good life? Lesson from the Longest Study on Happiness, “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” For more information on the importance of social connections, read our Cultivate Your Social Power post.
  3. Increased outdoor exercise: Dog owners exercise more than non-dog owners because most dogs need to be walked every day. Physical activity and getting outdoors are critical components of long-term health. It’s well known that exercise is good for your health, but did you know that according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service website, being outside increases life expectancy, improves sleep quality, and reduces stress? 
  4. Improved mental health: NPR quotes Dr. Dhruv Kazi, a cardiologist and health economist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, “I think the biggest advantage of having a dog is what it does for mental health.” Interacting with your dog increases hormones oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. These hormones provide a sense of well-being and happiness while reducing depression and anxiety. 
  5. Improved immunity and resiliency: A 1988 Journal of Behavioral Medicine study showed a “pet effect” where interacting with a pet lowers blood pressure. Lower blood pressure means less stress hormone cortisol which increases immune function. A Rutgers study found pet owners report fewer sick days. 
  6. Improved cardiovascular health: A 2019 study published in the Journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes links dog ownership to a 31% reduction in the risk of death for people with heart disease. 

If you’re not ready for a full-time ownership commitment, you can offer to walk a neighbor’s dog or volunteer at a local animal shelter—even short interactions provide rewards. 

Some doctors joke that they should prescribe dog ownership for their patient’s long-term health. So if you are going it alone in retirement, consider getting your new best friend. And as you reap the benefits of dog ownership, you can ponder “who rescued who?”

Throughout this “Going It Alone” section of this blog, we will share learnings from others navigating retirement alone, so that you don’t have to do it all alone.

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