Betty White’s Lesson:  How Seniors Benefit from Owning a Dog

Posted on January 11, 2022 by Martin Oaks under Community, Memorial, Resources
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For most of her long life, Betty White was dialed into special information that even scientific research had not yet explored.


White, who passed away on New Years Eve 2021 just weeks before her 100th birthday, understood the myriad of benefits created by the bond between humans and animals.


“Animals don’t lie, animals don’t criticize,” White said.  “If animals have a moody day, they handle it better than humans do…I want to be remembered as a lady who helped the animals…that’s my true passion.”


There’s no estimating how many animals White cared for — at one point, her family had 26 pets.  “Animals are just special, they all have their own gifts,” she said.


In 2019, researchers Caroline Kramer, Sadia Mehmood and Renée S. Suen did a meta-analysis of studies focused on dog ownership and human mortality which were published between 1950 and 2019.  Approximately 3.8 million subjects were involved in this mammoth review.


The results would gratify pet lovers worldwide:  there was a demonstrable 24% reduced risk of all causes of death for dog owners compared to non-owners.  People who own dogs live healthier lives.


Dr. Kramer said, “We studied three million people and the results are very significant…our analysis found having a dog is actually protective against dying of any cause.”


The study had even better news for those suffering from cardiovascular problems.  If you own a dog, your chance of expiring after a heart attack is 65% less than those who do not own dogs.  Similar odds exist for those who suffer strokes.

Research that Kramer and her colleagues reviewed included studies which suggest dog owners have a better cholesterol profile and lower blood pressure.  One study found just petting a dog can reduce that pressure.


Why does the presence of man’s best friend have such a felicitous impact?


Baylor professor Dr. Glenn Levine explained the answer to the publication, Managed Healthcare Executive: “When you own a dog, you tend to do more physical activity.  There were some very good studies that not surprisingly clearly documented that.  We know regular physical activity helps the heart and helps the body as a whole. It also seems that owning a dog decreases mental stress, which we know more and more can contribute to better heart health.  It may also have a lot of indirect benefits.”


Among those benefits is increased socialization, especially important in these days of pandemic-driven distancing precautions.


“We all know social isolation is a strong risk factor for health outcomes and premature death,” said Tove Fall, Ph.D.  “Dog owners experience less social isolation and have more interaction with people…a dog is good motivation for physical activity, which is an important factor.”


A study which Fall co-authored contained another key dynamic in dog ownership:  it’s a propitious situation for the millions of people who live alone.  The risk of cardiovascular related death for dog owners who lived by themselves was 36% less than those who were non-owners.


All of this research has caught the attention of the medical profession.  Doctors are now advising seniors to get pets for the aforementioned gains.  Assisted living homes have been allowing pets at rates not previously seen.

Getting old, after all, can eventually become a lonely trail.  Loved ones can pass or move on either emotionally or geographically.  Science has shown that pets can help fill these voids.


As one geriatrician framed the issue, “In a pet adoption, it’s really a case of who is rescuing who — it usually has mutually beneficial outcomes.”


Is it ever too late to adopt an animal?


A number of experts agree that 70 is a perfect age for someone to rescue a pet.  At that point, people generally have the freedom to accommodate their lifestyle to the presence of a forever roommate who is going to need plenty of attention.

“Some people feel it’s wrong to get a dog when you yourself are old,” said Carol Lea Benjamin, a noted animal trainer.  “To me, the saddest thing, the unthinkable thing, would be to be old and not have a dog.  A dog can mitigate so much of what may be difficult in old age…with some careful choices and little planning, you can and should have a dog at any time in your life.  As it turns out, when you are not a kid any longer, that may be when you want a dog most.”

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