Follow along with the transcript below for episode: How Pets Improve Your Brain Health as You Age With Brittany Derrenbacher
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 409 of Live Happy Now. We know that pets and happiness go hand in hand or maybe hand in paw. But did you know that your pet could also be improving your brain health as you age?
I’m your host, Paula Felps. Today, I’m once again talking with Brittany Derrenbacher, a mental health counselor and certified grief and pet loss specialist to talk about how pets can change the way we age. Today, Brittany explains what pets can do to keep our brains and bodies healthy, as well as how we can use our pets to create happiness for the older people in our lives. Let’s have a listen.
[00:00:41] PF: Brittany, thank you for coming back on Live Happy Now.
[00:00:44] BD: Hi. It’s so good to be back.
[00:00:46] PF: We have so much to talk about today because brain health, super important for our happiness and our well-being. Now, there’s a new study that talks about how pets affect that. But before we get into the pet portion of that, I wanted to find out from you. Can you talk about what the connection is between brain health and cognition and our happiness and well-being?
[00:01:08] BD: Yes. So it’s kind of like the neuroscience of happiness. I feel like happiness is – it’s so difficult to define and measure because it is subjective, right?
[00:01:21] PF: Right.
[00:01:22] BD: But what I will say on a personal level is that we feel joy in our bodies because of the release of dopamine and serotonin and those two types of neurotransmitters in the brain. Both of those chemicals are heavily associated with happiness. So our brain health, just by virtue of that, is usually linked to our mental health and well-being. That’s our happiness.
[00:01:48] PF: There you go. What are some of the things that are scientifically proven to improve our brain health and help with our cognition?
[00:01:57] BD: Yes. There’s a handful of things. A recent study on older adults identified particular habits that are shown to improve cognition in humans and basically slow down the rate of memory decline. Some of those habits are exercising. I feel like these are going to be really self-explanatory, and we will go into those more in-depth. But basically exercising, socializing, healthy eating, no smoking and drinking, brain exercises, things like that, just to name a few.
But essentially, what we’re saying here is that intellectual engagement, social interaction, physical activity, and having a sense of purpose in our lives slow risk factors for cognitive decline and things like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
[00:02:47] PF: Interesting. Again, we talk so much here on the show about nature and biophilia. Does that help our brain cognition as well? I mean, I know it makes us feel good, and it really helps us mentally. But does it help with our actual cognition?
[00:03:02] BD: I would imagine that it does just by virtue of when we’re out in nature, we are living in our conscious mind, rather than our subconscious. So we’re really bringing that mindfulness intentionality. We’re basically bringing our brain back online. So we’re –
[00:03:18] PF: I love the way you put it.
[00:03:19] BD: Yes. We’re actively bringing it back online and bringing it out of autopilot. So there’s a lot of power in that. It’s building new neural pathways, just by going out into the woods and being more present.
[00:03:32] PF: Yes, especially if you get lost in the woods, and you’re being chased by someone.
[00:03:35] BD: You got to use that big brain.
[00:03:39] PF: You got to run. So pets help us in so many ways. When you look at the things that you just mentioned about exercise, well, obviously, they can’t help us with not smoking or drinking. But there are several points that they could help us with. Can you explain some of the ways that they’re encouraging better physical and mental health for us?
[00:03:58] BD: Yes. In one of our last conversations together, we talked about the power of pets in our lives. Not only is pet owning scientifically shown to improve our well-being, our socialization, and decrease stress. Now, through research and data, we can see how pet owning has brain-boosting benefits as well.
So this conversation that we’re having today really allows us to dig a little bit deeper into those layers and consider the long-term benefits of being a pet owner. I say long term because I feel like a lot of the studies that we’re going to be talking about today really explain that it has to be consistent years of pet owning, right? You can’t just go out tomorrow and adopt a dog and in a couple of weeks, show all of the benefits, right? So this really has to –
[00:04:45] PF: Just like any other health habit, right?
[00:04:47] BD: Yes, yes. So this is really a lot of what we’re going to be talking about today. I do think it’s important to acknowledge that this is about long-term benefits of being a pet owner. It’s also like a PSA like, “Go out and get you your animal,” [inaudible 00:04:58], right?
What really stood out to me is just how many of the healthy brain habits mentioned earlier are covered by being a pet owner, so exercising, socialization, stress reduction, brain exercises, routine. This really suggests that our relationships with our animals, our companionships with our pets itself can increase connectivity in the brain and become a protective agent against aging. I feel like that’s pretty amazing.
[00:05:33] PF: Yes. So as if pets aren’t doing enough for us. Now, they’re slowing down our aging process. So that’s – oh, my God. That’s amazing. So I wanted to ask you. You mentioned stress reduction. How do pets help reduce our stress? Because sometimes, they are stressors, like when my two guys are like fighting or something like that. But how do they help us?
[00:05:54] BD: Yes. First and most importantly, owning pets reduces anxiety and combats feelings of loneliness. So our pets tend to help us self-soothe. They stabilize our nervous systems. That activates oxytocin in our bodies and reduces cortisol level in our brain. So that’s what I mean by the stress reduction. So, yes, our animals can stress this out. But our relationship with our animals is so reciprocal that like we’re talking about something a little bit bigger here. That this activation of the oxytocin in our bodies consistently and the consistent reduction in cortisol levels in our brains.
This is alone known to improve our cognitive health as human beings because chronic stress and anxiety has such negative effects on our brain health. That’s what I see in my field in mental health is that long-term kind of chronic stress that has really built up in our bodies and have a negative effect on our brain health.
[00:06:54] PF: That’s incredible. One thing you and I had talked about was the study that was recently published in the Journal of Aging and Health, and it specifically focused on people over the age of 65. It was pretty narrow in its focus because not only was it people over the age of 65. It really looked at their cognitive scores and word recall. It showed that people who had pets and had had that pet for more than five years, to your point, it’s an ongoing thing. If they’d had a pet for more than five years, they had much higher scores.
One thing the study did not show was the cause and effect. So I get so much about what you’re saying was stress reduction and helping in that way. Do you have any insight into why that would help with the word recall and that cognition in our brains?
[00:07:42] BD: Yes. I want to focus a little bit on the word recall because I think that goes under the category of brain exercise and routine. Pet ownership is so good for working our verbal memory, our memorization in general, orientation to time in place because we’re consistently learning how to adapt with our animals and build these kind of new neural pathways through training, right? Through just by virtue of having to take care of them, remembering to feed them, to walk them, to groom them.
We have to constantly engage in critical thinking, planning for the future, practicing self-regulation. With patients, you were talking about that, right? With our pets, like for example, I want you to think about how much you have to remember to care for your pets. How much planning and preparation you have to go through just to prepare for a storm.
[00:08:39] PF: Yes. In particular, storms take a lot of prep at this house.
[00:08:44] BD: Yes. Do you want to talk about that? What do you have to do to prepare for that?
[00:08:45] PF: I would love to. We went through it last night. Yes. When we know that a storm is coming in and we don’t know, obviously, how bad it’s going to be. So it’s like we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got Josie’s is hemp treat that’s going to help calm her down. We make sure that her thunder shirt is nearby. It even affects how we schedule things. If we have a thunderstorm predicted, we might have to change our plans because she really is terrified. You know Josie. You’ve seen the level of trauma that it creates for her.
Last night, we had storms, and we tried something new. We went down into the basement, which is not as horrific as it sounds. It’s a finished basement. But we just wanted something that would reduce the sound of thunder because the thunder started. She was shaking. We had her in the thunder shirt. Everyone’s huddled together, and it wasn’t working. So we go down to the basement. We turned on the television, put on some music that was not going to be jarring for her, and just really did a lot of things to – we were using a lot of brainpower trying to figure out what else we could do to make this situation better, and it did work. Ultimately, it was one of our better storm knights. But, yes, it takes a lot of thought and, as you said, preparation.
[00:09:54] BD: That in and of itself is critical thinking. It’s memory. It’s routine. A huge part of cognitive health in human beings is our structure, is our routine, is our memory. So feeding, exercising, caring for our pets can really help us kind of establish this routine, which it’s just grounding, focusing. It’s achieving its purpose. So just these two things alone, the brain exercise and the routine, check so many boxes.
[00:10:26] PF: I’ll be right back with more of my conversation with Brittany Derrenbacher about how pets can help us age better. But right now, I’m bringing in my friend, Kate Vastano. We recently hooked up Kate and her cat, Kittles, with an amazing cat tree from Mau Pets. Now, we’re introducing the adventures of Kittles to find out how it’s going. Kate, how are you doing today?
[00:10:46] KV: I’m doing great, Paula. Happy to be here with you.
[00:10:46] PF: Well, last week, Kittles got the most amazing cat tree. I mean, I was so impressed by the design of this. I actually thought about going out and getting a cat of my own.
[00:10:57] KV: Right. The one I got, it’s called the Cento, and it is gorgeous. It basically looks like a piece of art, and I’m so happy that I finally found a cat tree that actually makes my home look better inside instead of being an eyesore. It is so modern-looking. It’s not an ugly cat tree, which is refreshing.
[00:11:15] PF: Yes, it is. It is really, really beautiful. One thing I thought was really cool about it is that every purchase also gives back because five percent of the proceeds are donated to animal welfare and environmental conservation. For every product purchased, Mau Pets plants one new tree.
[00:11:31] KV: It’s so beautifully made, Paula. I will never put another ugly cat tree in my house again. It’s just gorgeous.
[00:11:38] PF: If you want to upgrade your kitty’s furniture, visit maupets.com. That’s maupets.com to check out their amazing selection of stylish, contemporary cat furniture. Now, let’s get back to my conversation with Brittany Derrenbacher, as she dives into how pets help improve our cognition as we age.
[00:11:56] BD: I’d like to dive into this idea of routine a little bit too and kind of go back to that study about folks that are over the age of 65. I’d like to use my grandma as an example because she’s now currently in a memory care facility for Alzheimer’s dementia. But about 15 years ago, when she was diagnosed, we knew as a family pretty immediately that we wanted her to have her sense of purpose and routine and structure and stay in her home as long as possible.
I can tribute her ability to be able to stay in her home as long as she did because of her cat, Tigger. He was such a huge part of her routine. She might forget my name, and she might forget how to work the coffeemaker that day, but she was not going to forget how to take care of him.
[00:12:45] PF: Oh, my gosh. That’s amazing.
[00:12:47] BD: I truly like – I associate that time that she was able to really stay in her home for as long as she was with that routine that she had with her cat.
[00:12:56] PF: That’s such an important point because, obviously, you are involved in rescue. You’ve seen these situations where people are reluctant to adopt another pet because they’re of a certain age. To me, that’s kind of crushing because, oh, man, they can do so much for you. They would be so helpful. I understand that concern. So can you address it? Because you’ve dealt with it from both sides, both adopting the pet and then seeing a pet that outlives its owner. So can you speak to that point?
[00:13:27] BD: Yes. I think in rescue work and something that I hope that it’s not unique that just our rescue does, I hope that other rescues embrace this as well, is that we never turned an elderly applicant down. We would work with them to make sure that they had a support system and that they did have a plan. I feel like having an honest conversation about that is the best way to go into it. Like, “Okay. What would your plan be if you passed? Who would take care of your pet?” So having open conversations like that.
But also, like we never ever, ever shamed any families that came forward with animals because of having a family member pass away. An elderly family member passed away or, say, a parent. But the reason that we truly believe that these elderly applicants should not be turned away is because they’re the best pet owners. They’re the ones that are really focusing all of their time and energy on these pets and giving them everything that they can.
Also, it’s reciprocal. We know that these animals and these dogs that they adopt are going to add years onto their life. So as long as we can really work with them to have a plan and make sure that like that animal is going to be taken care of or returned to us, we would never turn them away.
[00:14:44] PF: Yes. It gives so much just in terms of the socialization because as we age, people are less mobile. They’re less able to get out and socialize. Loneliness is a huge problem among older people. Can you talk about that and how the pets can help with that?
[00:14:59] BD: Yes. Exercising and socialization is a huge part of this conversation. Exercise is the most underrated antidepressant and it’s free, right?
[00:15:09] PF: You don’t even have to join a gym. Come on.
[00:15:10] BD: Yes, it’s free. Physical exercise is it increases blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain. It’s also directly linked to synaptic integrity and especially in older adults. So that strength of communication between our neurons in our body. So if you think about it, you’re out walking your dog every day. This is good, consistent exercise. It’s movement outdoors. But it also encourages us to meet other people, right? As a dog owner, you stop. You chat with other people. You run into people at the dog park. You’re constantly kind of meeting other people.
Other pets can really be a part of this conversation too because pet shops, right? You’re meeting people, training classes. You’re meeting people. Online groups are huge for pet owners. So this is really good socialization for older folks. Dog agility. We’ve talked about this before. My mom owns a training and agility facility here in Louisville, and a huge part of the population there is older ladies.
[00:16:12] PF: Really?
[00:16:13] BD: Yes. They’re there with their dogs. They’re working on all of the things that we’re talking about; exercise, socialization, the brain games really, the constant movement, the stress reduction. They’re doing all of those things, just by attending an agility class with their dogs.
[00:16:29] PF: So what about someone who has a cat? Cats are – they’re active in their own way. How does someone get the benefit of exercise? Obviously, the socialization comes because of the cuddling with your cat. But how do they incorporate exercise into cat ownership?
[00:16:46] BD: Yes. Cats are still mobile creatures. You can get up. You can move around. You can be on the floor with them. You can be sitting with them and moving around. I love seeing those little catnip toys and all the –
[00:16:58] PF: Ah, the little ones with the stuff on. Yes.
[00:17:01] BD: There are games that you can play with your cats. It’s not just dogs that have puzzle games. It can be reciprocal with your cats too. Cats love to play games. They’re very engaging creatures. I know we have a lot of assumptions, and there’s a lot of stereotypes with cats. But cats come second on the list in these research studies for really improving cognition in humans. So –
[00:17:22] PF: We have a relative, and she was wonderful with cats. She always had a lot of cats, rescued all these cats. In the last few years, as they died, she did not get any more because she knew that she was getting older. She’s now in hospice care. One thing that’s been very hard on her is not having animals around.
Unfortunately, she’s in a facility where you can take your pets. I thought this was amazing because we were in Cincinnati to visit her, and we took our dogs in there. The dogs got up on the bed. She’s able to love on them. We talked to her a week or so ago, and she was saying that, yes, they still talk about when Rocco and Josie came to visit. It was such a big thing for them. They’ve also even had people bring cats in to visit.
Talk about it from that perspective. If you know an older person who doesn’t have a pet who is no – and loves them. Let’s make sure they love the pet. But if you have an older person in your life who doesn’t have access to a pet, how important is that to be able to provide that experience for them?
[00:18:24] BD: Oh, huge. We’ve talked about this too on some of our past episodes that there are service animals for everything. That is literally their purpose is to go and bring joy to other people and provide comfort. I hope that it becomes more routine to establish these type of connections in these places. Not only do we, like with Luna Bell’s, love to do that with our animals, taking them into senior living facilities and things like that. I just think it’s such a beautiful reciprocal thing to have happen to be giving to someone while also be giving to yourself and be giving to your pet. It’s kind of this beautiful, powerful, energetic exchange that’s happening.
[00:19:05] PF: Yes. What does the pet get out of it? Because I know Rocco and Josie had a great time visiting there because they got so much attention. It took so long to get to her room because every person stopped and wanted to pet the dogs and see the dogs. What does that do for the pets?
[00:19:20] BD: That’s confidence building, right?
[00:19:22] PF: Ah, okay.
[00:19:23] BD: Yes. That’s socialization too. That’s just expanding joy for them. It’s putting them to work. They love that. They love having purpose. So we’ve talked about that a lot in this episode too. It’s not just important for human beings to have purpose. Our animals need to have purpose too. So I think for them to go into these places and to feel joy and build confidence and connection and both give and receive, that’s just so powerful for them. It’s huge.
[00:19:50] PF: So even as an owner, you might decide like this is really something I want to continue doing with the pet and be able to become a service animal that they can visit and see people. How does that increase that bond between you and your pet when you do something like that?
[00:20:06] BD: I don’t know. I just feel like we’re essentially doing some multi-focused empowerment work here by doing that, helping others while helping ourselves while helping our animals. It just builds this beautiful connection of both giving and receiving. I just think there’s just such a unique power in that that we don’t get in other relationships.
[00:20:24] PF: Yes. Yes, that’s so true. We know now from the studies and from what you were just telling us that pets are so good for us. Can you talk about how we can leverage that benefit?
[00:20:35] BD: Yes. I think that our lifestyle factors plays such a huge role in our brain health. So having this conversation really, it helps us realize, I think, that why wouldn’t we be pet owners? Why wouldn’t we actively be wanting to pursue these lifestyle shifts to create a better holistic lifestyle for us? I think that genetics do have a role in determining our health and longevity, obviously. But we do have more control over our future than we previously thought. So implementing healthy lifestyle habits can have a major impact. I think pet owning proves time and time again that it checks all these boxes.
We talk about intentionality a lot when we’re together, and we talk about the human bond a lot, obviously. But I think just the power of knowing that taking care of our pets can so positively change not only the way that we think about ourselves but our mental health, our physical health, our spiritual health, our emotional health. There are so many benefits just from being a pet owner. So it’s a constant return in our investment.
For a lot of people, the most reciprocal relationship that they will ever know in their life is with their pet. So our relationships with our pets are just consistently filling up our cups and allowing us to experience this love and this bond that really is amazing for our mental health. It fosters resilience, and it empowers us to really thrive and live our best life physically and mentally, cognitively.
[00:22:14] PF: Yes. That makes sense because I know when you and I talked about grief, and sometimes people have this after the loss of a pet, they kind of feel guilty because it affected them more than, say, the loss of a parent or the loss of a human in their life. One thing that we talked about is like that pet never judged you. Well, maybe if it was a cat, they did. But like they didn’t openly judge you. It didn’t cause you harm the way the humans that we love and who love us sometimes do it.
[00:22:45] BD: Yes. It’s so much more powerful than we give it credit for in our society. I think it’s definitely shifting. These conversations contribute to that shift. But owning an animal, being a pet owner, having the bond with our pets, like this deep bond that is really changing over time so beautifully, it affects us in so many powerful ways. I love like this idea that – I don’t know. It’s like owning pets is really the holistic health care that we need.
[00:23:24] PF: It really is. That’s a great way to look at it. It’s the month of March. It’s our happiness month. You’re one of our happy activists. So we’re really excited about that, and we thank you for that. But there are also several holidays in March to celebrate our animals. There’s National Puppy Day. There’s Cuddly Kitten Day. There’s National Terrier Day, which I know you and I think is a very holy day. There’s Respect Your Cat Day. Yeah. I know that’s actually a thing. What is your favorite way to celebrate your pets and why?
[00:23:54] BD: I love this question. I think my favorite way to celebrate my pets, my dogs is by experiencing life with them, living in the here and now, not taking life so seriously, embracing childlike joy, just literally being with them. Because I think our animals are our best teachers when it comes to joy and loving presence. When we actually stop to lean into that, it can be such a beautiful thing.
[00:24:27] PF: I love that. Brittany, thank you for once again coming on and talking about this. We’re going to tell people as always how they can find you, how they can learn more about all the work that you’re doing, and follow you on all the channels. But thank you so much for sitting down with me today and talking.
[00:24:43] BD: Thank you.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:24:48] PF: That was Brittany Derrenbacher, talking about how pets improve mental cognition across our lifetime. If you’d like to learn more about Brittany and the work she’s doing or follow her on social media, just visit our website at livehappy.com and click on the podcast app.
Just a reminder that we are still celebrating the month of March with our Happy Acts campaign. Follow us on social media or visit our website to be inspired by a different happy act every day. While you’re there, be sure and visit the Live Happy Store to find the perfect shirt that shows the world how you live happy.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.