Does Your Best (Canine) Friend Improve Your Health in Childhood and Old Age?
AMHERST, Mass. – A University of Massachusetts Amherst behavioral scientist is continuing her research into the impact on well-being of the human-animal bond with two new pilot studies, one involving older adults and the other focused on families with young children.
Healthy adults between ages 70-84 are being recruited for the Lifestyle, Brain and Cognitive Health Study, which requires two, in-person visits to UMass Amherst.
“Our interest is in how lifestyle factors, including pet ownership, affect cognitive health and brain health in older adulthood,” says Katie Potter, assistant professor of kinesiology in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences.
The study will look at two groups of older adults – those who own a dog and those who do not. Participants will complete a 30-minute orientation, either online or in person, before they undergo a physical and cognitive function assessment in Potter’s Behavioral Medicine Lab. They will complete a survey packet, wear an activity monitor and log physical activity for seven days. In their final visit to UMass, they will have an MRI scan of their brain to look at its structure and function.
“We want to identify modifiable risk factors for cognitive decline so we can create interventions to help people maintain their brain and cognitive health as they age,” Potter says. “We know there are certain risk factors we can’t modify, like a person’s age and their genetics. But we want to figure out what things we can modify to protect the brain and prevent or at least delay the onset of cognitive decline. Amazingly, despite the high prevalence of pet ownership in the United States, there is very little research into how pets affect brain health. I think there are many potential mechanisms by which caring for pets could affect the brain and cognition – the routine of taking care of them, the companionship they provide and, with dogs, walking them and connecting with neighbors while on walks.”
For the Kids Interacting with Dogs (KID) Study, Potter is looking for families with at least one dog (minimum age of 1 year old), at least one child aged 3 to 10 and one parent or guardian also willing to participate. She hopes to measure the physical activity that children (and their parents) carry out with the family dog through play and walks. She also wants to examine how interacting with the dog affects children’s psychosocial well-being. “We’re going to ask kids to tell us about their attachment or relationship with their dog,” Potter says.
The family and the dog will wear Bluetooth-enabled accelerometers on their wrists or, in the dog’s case, collar, that will track the quantity and intensity of movement and who is doing the activity together.
While Potter says previous research suggests people with dogs get more physical activity, few studies have used technology to confirm how much activity is being done with the dog and how intense that activity is.
“The real novelty of this study is the use of Bluetooth devices on all the family members, including the dogs,” Potter says. “Knowing proximity is key because even if a kid wears a monitor and the dog wears a monitor, the kid can be running around at school while the dog is running around at home. You need the proximity information to know that they’re being active together.”
Participants will complete a 30-minute orientation (their choice of virtual or in-person), one in-person session at UMass for height and weight measurements, survey completion, and to pick up the accelerometers, and a final visit to UMass to return the devices. The family will wear the activity monitors for two weeks, and the parent will be asked to report all dog walking and play activities during the second week.