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Friends become increasingly important to health and happiness as people age, according to new research in the journal Personal Relationships. They’re so crucial, in fact, that having supportive friendships in old age was found to be a stronger predictor of wellbeing than having strong family connections.
The new paper explores the findings of two studies about relationships. In the first, involving more than 270,000 people in nearly 100 countries, author William Chopik found that both family and friend relationships were associated with better health and happiness overall. But at advanced ages, the link remained only for people who reported strong friendships.
“I went into the research sort of agnostic to the role of friendship,” says Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University. “But the really surprising thing was that, in a lot of ways, relationships with friends had a similar effect as those with family—and in others, they surpassed them.”
For the other study, Chopik analyzed a separate survey of nearly 7,500 older people in the U.S. Here, he found that it wasn’t just important to have friends, but that the quality of those friendships also mattered.
None of this is particularly surprising, says Chopik. After all, unlike our family, we can choose our friends. “A few studies show that we often enjoy our time with friends more than with family,” he says. “We do leisurely things with friends, whereas family events are often serious or maybe a little monotonous.”
The benefits of having close pals may also be stronger for older people because, by that point, those friendships have stood the test of time. “You have kept those people around because they have made you happy, or at least contributed to your wellbeing in some way,” says Chopik. “Across our lives, we let the more superficial friendships fade, and we’re left with the really influential ones.”
But Chopik says the power of friendship on physical and mental health is often ignored in research—especially in older people, where relationships with spouses and children are often considered more important.
And while it’s true that family members are often the people who provide caregiving support to the elderly, he says this can also create a sense of obligation. These relationships are certainly beneficial and often vital, Chopik adds. But they may not provide as much joy as those with long-time friends do.
Of course, some people can share powerful friendships with their siblings, spouses, children and other family members—and that’s a positive, too, says Chopik. “The general point is that the more support, the more positive interactions, the better,” he says. “The important thing is having people you can rely on, for the good times as well as the bad.”
and dogs &
Dogs are more than just cuddly companions — research continues to show that pets bring real health benefits to their owners.
And researchers have also shown that dog owners are more active than those who don’t own dogs, packing in more steps per day on their walks or just regular playtime. Last month, a study showed that older dog owners take 2,760 more steps per day on average compared to non-owners, which amounted to an additional 23 daily minutes of moderate exercise.
Now, a new study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health shows how enduring that phenomenon is: dog owners are also significantly more active during the winter.
Researchers from University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Center for Diet and Activity Research at the University of Cambridge used data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Norfolk cohort, and they focused their study on 3,123 participants between the ages of 49 and 91. Nearly 20% of those participants owned a dog, and they all wore an accelerometer for seven days to track their movements.
The researchers found that the the people who didn’t own a dog were sedentary for about 30 more minutes a day on average than those who walked their dogs. Everyone who participated in the study was less active on shorter days, colder days and days with more precipitation. But the researchers discovered that, even during days with bad weather, dog walkers were more active than non-dog walkers were on the nicest days.
“We were amazed to find that dog walkers were on average more physically active and spent less time sitting on the coldest, wettest, and darkest days than non-dog owners were on long, sunny, and warm summer days,” project lead Andy Jones, a UEA professor, said in a press release.
Dog walkers got in an average 12 more minutes of activity on the wettest days, for example, than those who don’t own dogs got on the driest days. Overall on the driest days, dog walkers were sedentary for an average of 632 minutes, compared to non-dog owners’ 661 minutes.
Jones said this finding could have important implications about how to motivate people to stay active as they age.
Being a pet in America is a plum gig. Pets are incredibly well loved: according to a 2015 Harris poll, 95% of owners think of their animal as a member of the family. About half buy them birthday presents. And it’s a two-way street. People who have pets tend to have lower blood pressure, heart rate and heart-disease risk than those who don’t. Those health boons may come from the extra exercise that playing and walking require, and the stress relief of having a steady best friend on hand.
Scientists are now digging up evidence that animals can also help improve mental health, even for people with challenging disorders. Though the studies are small, the benefits are impressive enough that clinical settings are opening their doors to animal-assisted interventions–pet therapy, in other words–used alongside conventional medicine. “It used to be one of the great no-no’s to think of an animal in a hospital,” says Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, citing the fear of causing infection. “Now, I don’t know of any major children’s hospital that doesn’t have at least some kind of animal program.”
The rise of animal therapy is backed by increasingly serious science showing that social support–a proven antidote to anxiety and loneliness–can come on four legs, not just two. Animals of many types can help calm stress, fear and anxiety in young children, the elderly and everyone in between.
More research is needed before scientists know exactly why it works and how much animal interaction is needed for the best results. But published studies show that paws have a place in medicine and in mental well-being. “The data is strong,” Beck says. “If you look at what animals do for people and how we interact with them, it’s not surprising at all.” Here’s a look some of the cutting-edge science in the field.
In one study, a stressed-out group of adults were told to pet a rabbit, a turtle or their toy forms. The toys had no effect. But stroking a living creature, whether hard-shelled or furry, relieved anxiety. It worked for people regardless of whether they initially said they liked animals.
Animals don’t have to be cuddly to help. In a 2016 study published in the journal Gerontology, elderly people who were given five crickets in a cage became less depressed after eight weeks than a control group. The act of caring for a living creature seems to make the difference.
Among the most-studied therapy animals, horses have been involved in medical treatment plans in Europe since the 1860s. Activities like grooming a horse and leading one around a pen have been shown to reduce PTSD symptoms in children and adolescents.
Animals can focus people’s attention. When people at an Alzheimer’s-disease facility dined in front of aquariums with brightly colored fish, they ate more, got better nutrition and were less prone to pacing. They were also more attentive and less lethargic.
Some research suggests that when children who struggle with reading read aloud to a trained dog and handler, they show fewer anxiety symptoms. “Their attitudes change and their skills improve,” says Lisa Freeman, director of the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction.
Animals make socializing easier for kids who find it stressful, says Maggie O’Haire of Purdue. In her study, when children with autism had a guinea pig in the classroom, they were more social with their peers, smiled and laughed more, and showed fewer signs of stress.