Imagine, if you will, a 24/7 health advocate – an advocate that provides unconditional love, a professional grief counselor, one who could offer inspiration and reamined calm during times of stress.

What if this advocate knew when you were sad, happy, despondent, depressed or confused? What about listening, conversation and making you feel needed? Now add exercise, nutrition, friendship – and the probability that you could fall in love!

How much would this cost?

Just a bunch of kibble and a whole lot of love.

Social isolation and loneliness are a growing public health epidemic. More than one-third of Americans older than 65 and half of those over 85 live alone.

Research shows that social relationships – of both quantity and quality – profoundly affect mental and physical health. Scientific research also continues to support pet ownership and human-animal interaction (HAI) for improving social connections, providing social support, decreasing loneliness and depression.

Elderly people who find themselves alone can feel young again and find meaning in their lives by adopting a friend from a local shelter. The unconditional love they get from having a pet enhances their lives as they grow older.

Instead of feeling incapable, they now have a reason to get up and do things because they have someone to take care of again.

Owning a dog also helps lower a person’s blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Studies show that having a dog increases survival rates in the elderly.

Dogs also provide a tremendous source of exercise. While some seniors might not feel like getting up and moving, a study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health found that dog owners walk approximately one hour longer per day than those without a fetching friend in their lives.

Not to mention, just petting a dog provides increased physical activity that strengthens the heart, improves blood circulation and slows loss of bone tissue.

It is important to be realistic regarding the demands of pet ownership as both you and your pet age. If you’re having trouble with balance, frailty or are fearful of falling yourself, it will be difficult for you to physically care for a dog (particularly a larger dog) that is having his own mobility issues.

As long as your health, finances and living situation allow it, the benefits of pet ownership tend to far outweigh the cons, including if you’re older. It is worth noting that some senior centers and retirement communities are also acknowledging this and allow residents to move in with pets.

If you are considering getting a dog or a cat, contact your local animal shelter or veterinarian to help you in the decision to select a pet that is right for you and your lifestyle.

Dogs aren’t just best friends; they are good medicine, making us live longer, happier and healthier lives.

Tricia Montgomery is founder and CEO of K9 Fit Club, with locations across the U.S., including Bluffton.