Your Weekly Checkup: The Four-Legged Prescription to Combat Loneliness

We are pleased to bring you “Your Weekly Checkup,” a regular online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive.

You might think living in a time of widespread social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn would dispel feelings of loneliness and relegate isolation to a thing of the past. Not so, particularly in the elderly. In Britain and the United States, about one third of people older than 65 live alone, and in the United States, half of those older than 85 live alone. Studies in both countries show that 10 to 46 percent of people older than 60 are lonely. England offers a telephone hot line, The Silver Line Helpline, that receives about 10,000 calls weekly from older folks seeking contact with other people. The Brits  view loneliness as a serious public health issue deserving national attention.

Why is loneliness important? Loneliness is an aversive signal much like thirst, hunger or pain. In fact, it can now be quantified and studied on a cellular level. Neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology identified a region of the brain called the dorsal raphe nucleus that they believe generates feelings of loneliness, and is also associated with depression. Increasing evidence links loneliness to physical illness, functional and cognitive decline and is a risk factor for early death.

What can lonely folks do to combat these feelings? Pets, especially dogs, provide companionship that reduces loneliness, anxiety, and feelings of depression. Owning a dog can foster interaction with other people, stimulate activity (e.g., walking the dog), and lead to improved mental and physical health. Almost half of American households own at least one dog. Dog owners are more likely to exercise, have a better cholesterol profile, have lower blood pressure, be less vulnerable to the physical effects of stress, and be more likely to survive a heart attack. Pet owners, especially single person households, reduce their chances of dying from heart disease by as much as 30 percent. Just owning a dog is no substitute for regular physical activity, eating a heart-healthy diet, stopping smoking, and getting regular medical care. That said, dogs seem to be good for your heart in many ways.

Frankie, my 8 ½-year-old Doberman, named after the female protagonist in my first novel, The Black Widows, recently passed away, but brought me much joy. She and I walked many happy miles together. It’s now time for me to find her replacement. For those of you who are alone and lonely, I encourage you to do the same. Select a breed that fits your needs. Your dog may not only become your best friend, but also save your life.