Therapy animals have long been the trusted companions of people with disabilities. Now, animals of all kinds are proving their value to individuals with dementia as well as to those hoping to reduce their risk of brain disease.
Physiology helps explain why animals are such effective therapists for all of us, says Marwan Sabbagh, MD, Director of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health: “Simply petting an animal can decrease the level of the stress hormone cortisol and boost release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, resulting in lowered blood pressure and heart rate and, possibly, in elevated mood.”
Man is by nature a social animal
Depression is common in individuals with dementia, a byproduct of the isolation and loneliness they often experience. Likewise, caregivers can feel alone and overwhelmed by their responsibilities. In both cases, bonding with an animal can help fill this void with social support and, from dogs in particular, with unconditional love.
In addition, dogs foster human connections for their owners. Take Rover for a ramble, and strangers who would never dream of approaching you in other situations will strike up a conversation centered on the animal. Even a mere smile from a passerby is a connection that can brighten your day.
Get your six legs out there!
Walking the dog yields a second, equally important benefit: physical exercise, which is also key to a brain-healthy lifestyle.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults need at least 2½ hours a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity for good health and double that amount for greater health benefits. Brisk walking (at least 3 mph — that’s 20 minutes per mile) qualifies as moderate-intensity activity. The payoff extends beyond enhanced brain health to weight control, improved cardiorespiratory fitness and muscular strength, and reduced risk of chronic diseases and killers such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes.
So give the cat a cuddle, then grab the leash and whistle for the dog. Get moving with your faithful companion by your side. You’ve got nothing to lose — and the potential to add years of healthy life ahead.