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School of Medicine
The Friend Who Keeps You Young
Caring for a pet is great for both your physical and emotional health. A Johns Hopkins expert shares the proven connections—plus ways to benefit even if you’re not ready for the full-time responsibility of an animal.
Adopting a pet may seem like a selfless act, but there are plenty of selfish reasons to embrace pet ownership. Research has shown that owning a pet provides an amazing array of health benefits, says Jeremy Barron, M.D., medical director of the Beacham Center for Geriatric Medicine at Johns Hopkins.
Not ready for a full-time furry friend in your home? Offer to walk a neighbor’s dog, cat-sit for a friend, or donate time at a local animal shelter—even short interactions provide enough pet exposure to reap some of these rewards.
Research has shown that simply petting a dog lowers the stress hormone cortisol, while the social interaction between people and their dogs actually increases levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin (the same hormone that bonds mothers to babies).
In fact, an astonishing 84 percent of post-traumatic stress disorder patients paired with a service dog reported a significant reduction in symptoms, and 40 percent were able to decrease their medications, reported a recent survey.
Lower blood pressure.
The cortisol-lowering and oxytocin-boosting benefits of petting also help keep your blood pressure at bay. “Petting and holding an animal allows you to appreciate the beauty of nature,” explains Barron. “It’s relaxing and transcendental.”
Increase physical activity.
How many people are willing to go outside at the crack of dawn and exercise in the rain or snow? Dog owners often have no choice—they have to walk their pet, thus providing them with an excuse-proof daily dose of exercise.
Boost heart health.
The American Heart Association released a research report endorsing dog ownership as a way of warding off cardiovascular disease.
Ease loneliness and depression.
A 2011 study found that pet owners had better self-esteem. Another study determined that pets provided greater social support than humans in mitigating depression. “Caring for a pet provides a sense of purpose to the owner,” says Barron. Plus, pets are a good social catalyst for meeting people who share your animal interests.
Help specific health concerns.
Beyond simple companionship, dogs have long been wonderful helpers to those without sight or with mobility issues. Dogs are even being used to help detect conditions from seizures to cancer.
Cardiovascular (car-dee-oh-vas-cue-ler) disease: Problems of the heart or blood vessels, often caused by atherosclerosis—the build-up of fat deposits in artery walls—and by high blood pressure, which can weaken blood vessels, encourage atherosclerosis and make arteries stiff. Heart valve disorders, heart failure and off-beat heart rhythms (called arrhythmias) are also types of cardiovascular disease.
Cortisol (kor-tuh-sol): A hormone produced by the adrenal glands on top of the kidneys and involved in the stress response. It rises in the mornings, inducing wakefulness and also rises during stress. Sleep deprivation, caffeine and alcohol can also raise cortisol levels. Chronically high levels have been linked with low immunity, weight gain and other health problems.
Oxytocin (ok-si-toh-suhn): In men, a hormone released from the pituitary gland that aids penile erection and ejaculation. In women, it stimulates milk production and the uterus to contract. In both genders, it influences social bonding, which is why it also is sometimes referred to as a bonding or love hormone. As a medicine, oxytocin is sometimes given to pregnant women to induce or speed labor.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): A disorder in which your “fight or flight,” or stress, response stays switched on, even when you have nothing to flee or battle. The disorder usually develops after an emotional or physical trauma, such as a mugging, physical abuse or a natural disaster. Symptoms include nightmares, insomnia, angry outbursts, emotional numbness, and physical and emotional tension.
Social support: The help you receive from others in your life. Family, friends, peers and other people who care about you and for you make up your social support system or network.