Nov 5, 2021
6 Unexpected Health Benefits of Pets for Older Americans

There are many obvious benefits to pet parenting — unconditional love and limitless affection, for example. But there are also health benefits to living with a dog or cat that aren’t as well-known, particularly for older Americans.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pets “increase opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities, [contribute to] better cognitive function in older adults, and [provide] more opportunities to socialize." Having a pet is also linked to health benefits such as decreased blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels. Pet ownership is even associated with reduced feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and PTSD.

“We have three dogs and I can tell you firsthand about the important role pets play in keeping us grateful, grounded and in the moment, especially in these difficult times,” said Gary Culp, the chief growth officer for Cigna's Medicare Advantage business. “Pets are truly an important and beloved part of my family, just like they are in so many U.S. households.”

Recognizing the value pet parenting adds to human health, Cigna is working with Nationwide, the nation’s leading pet insurer, to educate older adults about how to reap the health benefits of owning a pet. Below we deep dive into some of the physical and mental health benefits that pets bring to older adults.

1. Pets Make Their Owners Feel Needed

Caring for a living being gives our lives purpose and helps establish a routine that adds structure to our days. That mutual bond can help improve physical and mental health for humans and pets alike. Research shows that more than three-quarters of pet owners say their animals reduce their stress, and nearly as many say pets give them a sense of purpose.

2. Pets Help Their Owners Form Connections with other People

Pets are undoubtedly great companions, but they also help their humans make connections with other people and build a social support network, which has health benefits as well. Research has found being a pet owner was the third most common way that people meet other people in their neighborhoods. And, pet owners were 60% more likely than non–pet owners to get to know people in their neighborhoods. Taking your dog on a stroll through the park can be a great conversation starter.

3. Pets Help Relieve Feelings of Loneliness and Isolation

Cigna conducted a large national online survey of U.S. adults and found that loneliness in the United States was at epidemic levels in 2019. The survey responses of more than 10,400 adults found that three in five Americans (61%) report feeling lonely, compared to more than half (54%) in 2018.

The company of a dog or cat can help people feel less lonely. Not only can pets provide reassuring nuzzles and emotional support, they are the perfect companions for older adults who live alone. In fact, research has found that older adults who reported owning a pet were 36% less likely to report loneliness than older adults who don’t have pets.

4. Pets Help People be Mindful defines mindfulness as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”

Pets live in the here and now, without worry about the future or thoughts about the past. Playing or cuddling with your dog or cat can help you do the same. One study shows that 87% of people feel more relaxed after spending time with a pet. And for people who tend to spiral into worry, the same study found that pets help them live in the moment, and stay mindful. 

5. Pets can Speed up Recovery

Studies suggest that a positive outlook can speed recovery after an illness or injury. Pets are so good at helping us see the bright side that many hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and long-term care centers have established pet visitation programs for patients. Dogs are especially effective at helping older patients who have physical disabilities.

A study by the University of Michigan, sponsored by AARP, found that 70% of older adults said their pet helps them cope with physical or emotional symptoms, and 46% said their pets help take their mind off of pain.

6. Pets Help Improve Fitness

Pets give you a clear reason to walk every day, and that rain-or-shine accountability can help you form a lasting exercise habit. Research in the BMC Public Health Journal found that people who own a dog walk 22 minutes longer on average than those who do not have a dog. Even a low-intensity daily 20-minute walk can improve heart health, lower blood pressure, and relieve stress.

Staying Healthy Helps you Care for Yourself and your Four-Legged Family Members, Too

Cigna’s Medicare Advantage plans have benefits that support your active lifestyle.

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To learn more about affordable pet coverage for pet owners, click here.