Mental Health

Friday 11 July 2014

Man's best friend is the best cure for loneliness

Owning a dog can work wonders on older people who are more vulnerable to feeling quite alone

Patricia Casey

Published 24/02/2014|02:30

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A dog may be man's best friend, but pet insurance can be expensive.

Europe faces a huge demographic and structural shift in its population. It is ageing and fragmented. People increasingly live alone and have little direct contact with family and friends whose geographic mobility takes them to far flung corners in their own country and abroad. And communication is increasingly indirect rather than face to face.

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Some see retirement as a time to uproot and move to a warmer climate. On the face of it this seems appealing but it is a change that the world's expert on loneliness cautions against.

He knows that loneliness is not a respecter of social class, of age or gender although it is more often experienced by older people and this is the aspect of life that Professor John Cacioppo, a psychologist form the University of Chicago, has been speaking about at the recent conference for the Advancement of Science. He says the problem of loneliness is large with around 20pc of Americans (60 million) experiencing it.

Discussing many aspects loneliness, Prof Cacioppo examined the impact on physical and psychological health. It has been known for decades that elderly people are particularly at risk of depression due to loneliness. What is less well appreciated is the effect on physical health. Men and women between the ages of 50 and 60 were followed up for six years and those who were lonely were twice as likely to die during that period when compared to those who felt loved and wanted.

According to his studies, loneliness is worse for health than obesity. This conclusion was based on an amalgamation of over 150 studies involving more than 300,000 individuals. It has been shown to cause an increase in blood pressure, placing people at risk of strokes and heart attacks. There is also an adverse effect on the immune system leading to infections.

In his book 'Loneliness', co-authored four years ago with science writer William Patrick, he argues that loneliness is an impulse that stimulates us to seek the emotionally nourishing effects of human companionship. He equates its power with that of hunger or thirst.

He is at pains to avoid blame. Being lonely does not occur because the person has done something wrong or disgraceful – he believes people should not self-stigmatise about this. He explains that loneliness can even occur when people are surrounded by family, co-workers, neighbours. It's just that they do not meet the individuals' social and emotional needs. And this is something that many people I deal with professionally tell me – even when they are with children and spouses they feel alone. It is sometimes referred to as "existential aloneness".

Sometimes it is explained in spiritual terms, as feeling cut off from God. Others explain it in evolutionary terms, as does Cacioppo.

He believes that it was a force that bonded the earliest humans to those on whom they depended for food and shelter. Moving away from the group increased the feeling of insecurity. He also draws attention to the fact that some people seem not to feel the pain of loneliness and appear not to need others. He described these as also being necessary for society and equates them with explorers who leave the "camp fire".

The positive thing is that when we feel lonely, for the most part we try to do something to end our misery. His advice is amazingly simple and even prosaic. Of course we should contact friends and family. But he also recommends pets, in particular dogs.

His research shows that having a dog decreases feelings of loneliness. He attributes this to having to take them for walks and that, like all exercise, this increases feelings of well-being by stimulating feel-good hormones.

Another possible explanation is that when we are walking our pet we stop and talk to others. Sometimes one dog will spot another and we talk to its owners, or other people will stop and admire your pet. So taking the dog for a walk is a social activity in the way that having a cat or a hamster is a solitary state.

And the last line of that lovely children's song 'How much is that doggy in the window' contains some nuggets of wisdom:

"I don't want a bunny or a piggy
I don't want a parrot at all
I don't want a bowl of little fishes
You can't take a gold fish for a walk".

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