Medicinal love: Study finds dog owners live longer, have healthier hearts

DALLAS — Breakthroughs in modern medicine over the past few decades have revolutionized healthcare as we know it. All that being said, sometimes a little love and affection goes a long way too. And who are the absolute champions of unconditional love? Man’s best friend, of course. According to new research, dog ownership may be associated with a longer lifespan and improved cardiovascular health, particularly among heart attack and stroke survivors who live alone.

A great deal of previous research has already established that living alone and neglecting physical activity can have an adverse effect on cardiovascular health and risk factors. Furthermore, prior research has also illustrated that owning a dog can help alleviate feelings of loneliness, improve physical activity, and lower blood pressure. So, researchers conducted a study and a separate analysis of prior research to investigate how owning a dog may impact an individual’s overall and cardiovascular health.

First, for the study, researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden compared the health outcomes of both dog owners and non-owners following a heart attack or stroke. Data used for the analysis consisted of Swedish residents aged 40-85 who had experienced either a heart attack or ischemic stroke between 2001-2012.

Compared to people who don’t own a dog, the study’s authors discovered that dog ownership was associated with a 33% lower risk of death among heart attack survivors living alone, and a 15% lower risk for those living with a child or partner. Additionally, dog ownership was associated with a 27% lower risk of death among stroke survivors living alone, and a 12% lower risk among stroke survivors living with at least one family member.

All in all, almost 182,000 people who had suffered a heart attack were included in the study, with 6% of that statistic consisting of dog owners. Meanwhile, close to 155,000 people who had suffered a stroke were included, with nearly 5% being dog owners.

As far as explaining their findings, researchers theorize that dog owners typically get more exercise by taking their dogs for walks, and their canine companions also help alleviate feelings of isolation. Both of these factors could conceivably improve one’s overall and cardiovascular health.

“We know that social isolation is a strong risk factor for worse health outcomes and premature death. Previous studies have indicated that dog owners experience less social isolation and have more interaction with other people,” says Tove Fall, D. V. M., professor at Uppsala University in Sweden, in an American Heart Association release. “Furthermore, keeping a dog is a good motivation for physical activity, which is an important factor in rehabilitation and mental health.”

The research team admit that it is possible that their dataset may have been slightly inaccurate due to possible misclassifications of dog ownership in couples living together, dog deaths over the course of the data collection period, and potential changes in dog ownership.

“The results of this study suggest positive effects of dog ownership for patients who have experienced a heart attack or stroke. However, more research is needed to confirm a causal relationship and giving recommendations about prescribing dogs for prevention. Moreover, from an animal welfare perspective, dogs should only be acquired by people who feel they have the capacity and knowledge to give the pet a good life,” the study reads.

Next, regarding the aforementioned meta-analysis, researchers from the University of Toronto examined patient data on 3.8 million people, collected from 10 separate studies. More specifically, nine of those studies compared all mortality outcomes for dog owners and non-owners, and four of the included studies focused on cardiovascular health outcomes among dog owners and non-owners.

The meta-analysis revealed some stark differences among the two groups; compared to non-owners, dog owners enjoyed a 24% reduced risk of all-cause mortality, a 65% lower risk of death following a heart attack, and a 31% lower risk of death due to cardiovascular-related problems.

Having a dog was associated with increased physical exercise, lower blood pressure levels and better cholesterol profile in previous reports,” comments Dr. Caroline Kramer, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto and a co-author on the meta-analysis. “As such, the findings that people who owned dogs lived longer and their risk for cardiovascular death was also lower are somewhat expected.”

Researchers say their next step is to conduct an interventional study investigating cardiovascular events following the adoption of a new pup, as well as any subsequent social and psychological benefits stemming from dog ownership.

“As a dog owner myself, I can say that adopting Romeo (the author’s miniature Schnauzer) has increased my steps and physical activity each day, and he has filled my daily routine with joy and unconditional love,” Dr. Kramer concludes.

Both the study and meta-analysis are published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, a journal of the American Heart Association.