Santa Fe, N.M. -- Human companionship is critical for physical, as well as emotional, well-being, studies have shown. Contact with family and friends can help prevent the age-related rise in blood pressure that can increase the risk of stroke and heart attack.
Unfortunately, a growing number women, particularly older women, live alone, often in isolation.
New research from the University at Buffalo presented here today (March 21, 1997) shows that for these individuals, a four-legged friend may be nearly as effective in keeping blood pressure down as the two-legged variety.
"The bottom line is, we have demonstrated that elderly women living alone who are attached to their pets and have nobody else derive physiological benefits that are similar to those derived from human companionship," said Karen Allen, Ph.D., UB research scientist and lead author of the study.
"We don't know if pets substitute for human companionship. It's possible pets provide humans with some quantity we don't understand. What is clear, however, is that our attempts to understand biological aging are incomplete without considering social factors."
Allen presented the results of the study, which also showed some benefit for younger women, at the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society.
The study was conducted over six months and involved 100 women who lived alone. Half were in their mid-20s, the other half were in their early 70s. Twenty-five women in each group had a dog or cat to which they were very attached. The other 25 in each group had never owned a pet. Of the young pet-owners, 17 had dogs and 8 had cats. The breakdown for the older pet-owners was 9 dogs and 16 cats.
All participants completed a questionnaire during the first week about social support, pet attitudes and their sense of control over their health. Participants' blood pressure and heart rate were taken at home four times during the six months. A computerized monitor recorded
cardiovascular measurements every five minutes for 40 minutes at each session. Researchers were not in the room, but pet-owners had their pets with them.
Results showed that blood pressure of pet-owners was lower than that of non-pet-owners in both age groups. Among elderly women, those with pets had significantly lower blood pressure readings than those without pets.
Among elderly women with little social support, systolic blood pressure of pet-owners was 20 points lower, on average, than the systolic pressure of those without pets. Owning a pet had only a slight moderating effect on the blood pressure of young women with little social support.
In addition, elderly women with pets but little human companionship had blood pressure readings nearly as low as young women with many supportive friends or family.
"These findings indicate that there is more than one type of positive social support," Allen said, "and they suggest that for people with few human contacts or friends, pets can play an important role in moderating age-related increases in blood pressure."
Apparently these results hold true only if Kitty or Fido are cherished members of the household. Two of the elderly pet-owners with little social contact bore no great love for their animal companions. These participants had blood-pressure readings as high as the no-pet group.
Allen said further research will try to determine if pets have a similar effect on elderly men, and at what age social support becomes important in moderating age-related increases in blood pressure.