Many pet owners—and researchers—would claim that pets can reduce stress, anxiety, and loneliness. Recent research looks to further support this assertion by studying how pet ownership, along with other factors, may impact a health metric called allostatic load (defined as the cumulative wear and tear on the body from chronic stress). Considering the effects of allostatic load on mental and physical health, understanding ways to reduce it is a vital avenue of research.
In order to examine how owning a pet could reduce allostatic load, researchers utilized a publicly available, nationally representative dataset of adults age 50 and better. This longitudinal dataset from the still ongoing Health and Retirement Study includes data from thousands of participants on a multitude of sociodemographic characteristics, physical traits, and biological markers. By analyzing 1,619 participants from this dataset, researchers found that pet owners had significantly lower allostatic load when compared to non-pet owners. However, this difference was not significant after the researchers adjusted for various socioeconomic factors, such as wealth, education, and race. Thus, even if someone owns a pet, chronic stress due to a lack of resources or health disparities may counteract the positive impact of their pet.
Allostatic load, which is related to chronic stress and has strong ties to health outcomes, is an important metric to try to reduce in whatever ways possible. Owning a pet could be one possible way to reduce allostatic load, but more research is needed to identify additional factors that may lessen chronic stress. Additionally, although owning a pet may impact allostatic load, these findings highlight a need to first address systemic causes of public health disparities in order to see larger changes in allostatic load.
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Applebaum, J. W., McDonald, S. E., & Zsembik, B. A. (2023). Longitudinal associations between allostatic load, pet ownership, and socioeconomic position among U.S. adults aged 50+. SSM – Population Health, 21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmph.2023.101344