Pets may encourage healthy aging

Millions of families across the country have pets, and while the four-legged friends offer a sense of companionship, a growing amount of research suggests they may provide health benefits as well. With that in mind, many retirement communities have done everything from using pet therapy to allowing seniors to bring their animals with them when they move, the Chicago Tribune reports.

The practice of allowing pets has grown considerably over the last five to 10 years, experts say, and approximately 40 percent of family members helping their loved ones move to retirement communities ask about whether pets are allowed. For 78-year-old Shirley Skirvin, her dog has proven to be a hit with other residents of her community while also helping her maintain some perspective.

"Dogs keep you from being so self-absorbed," Skirvin told the Tribune. "They remind you constantly of other qualities of life."

There is ample evidence to support Skirvin's decision to bring her dog to her Colorado retirement community. Perhaps the most compelling research came from a 1999 study published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society, which found that older adults with pets were better able to manage their moods and were less likely to be depressed.

Older adults who have dogs may also enjoy better overall health, largely because dog ownership requires them to regularly go for walks. A study of more than 2,000 dog owners between the ages of 71 and 82 found that, of those who walked their dog at least three times a week, many had better mobility and were able to reach the recommended 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity. Given that exercise is a key component of healthy aging, the relationship between having a pet and enjoying senior living becomes a bit clearer.