There’s more to aging well than eating right, exercising, and reducing stress. Adding a furry friend to the mix helps a whole lot, too.

Plenty of research has been conducted on the positive effects of pets on their humans — but the Gerontological Society of America (GSA), the nation’s largest interdisciplinary organization devoted to the field of aging, has recently formed an innovative partnership with Mars Petcare to advance research in the area of human-animal interaction (HAI) among older adults.

One 65-year-old man was asked why he wanted to adopt a pet. His answer: “To have someone to love.”

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“If there’s anything we can do to keep older adults healthier longer, we want to do it,” said Abigail Stevenson, Ph.D., global director of stakeholder relations for Mars Petcare. The company has been involved in research surrounding this topic for over 40 years, but Stevenson said they’re happy to be partnering on this new study.

Research has shown time and again that pet owners in general have healthier hearts, are sick less often, make fewer visits to the doctor, get more exercise, and are less depressed, said the National Center for Health Research.

Elderly individuals who have a cat or dog are more often able to perform “activities of daily living,” such as bending, climbing the stairs, bathing, and taking medications.

Pets may also have a significant impact on allergies, asthma, social support, and social interactions with other people.

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Because more recent research has focused on the role of pets in childhood and adolescence, “there is a growing need for dedicated research on the aging adult and the impact of pets on overall quality of life,” said James Appleby, GSA’s executive director and CEO.

[lz_bulleted_list title=”Heart-Healthy Friends” source=””]Your dog may make you less likely to get heart disease. Dog owners walk more and have lower blood pressure than people without dogs.|Heart attack survivors and those with abnormal heart rhythms who own dogs live longer than people with the same heart problems who don’t have dogs.[/lz_bulleted_list]

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“The special bond between people and their companion animals deserves exploration as a means of improving human health in a rapidly aging world,” said Nancy Gee, Ph.D., a GSA member and a HAI research manager at Mars Petcare. “The field of HAI research is a ripe one, ready for development and expansion, for gerontologists and other researchers interested in older populations.”

Many assisted living communities and nursing homes know the therapeutic effects of animals on people. Even fish in an aquarium can have a positive effect. Susan Kurowski, executive director of pets for the Elderly Foundation, helps pair older people with four-legged companions.

“Our founder’s goal was twofold: to ease loneliness and improve the health of seniors, and to reduce the number of animals languishing in shelters,” Kurowski told LifeZette. The foundation provides discounts to seniors for pet adoption — and the thank-you letters she receives make it obvious the program is making a difference.

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“The statements that cross my desk, as well as the look on the faces in almost all of the photos, help us to know this is a valuable program. One application I reviewed asked a 65-year-old man why he wanted to adopt. His answer was, ‘To have someone to love.'”

In another case, “a 72-year-old woman thanked us for the dog she adopted and went on to say that the dog ‘has brought joy and laughter back to my life — she has taught me to play again.'”

Statements like these, Kurowski said, are perfect examples of why they do what they do.

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