Increasing the number of years you are on this earth in part comes down to common sense because research has established some self-evident truths. Smoking, for example, raises your risk of developing a host of life-threatening cancers, such as lung cancer. While shunning manifestly unhealthy lifestyle habits is key to living a long life, research also reveals a strong connection between simple pastimes and increased life expectancy.
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In fact, a new study and separate meta-analysis published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, suggests dog ownership may be associated with longer life and better cardiovascular outcomes, especially for heart attack and stroke survivors who live alone.
“The findings in these two well-done studies and analyses build upon prior studies and the conclusions of the 2013 AHA Scientific Statement ‘Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk’ that dog ownership is associated with reductions in factors that contribute to cardiac risk and to cardiovascular events,” said Glenn N. Levine, M.D., chair of the writing group of the American Heart Association’s scientific statement on pet ownership.
He added: “Further, these two studies provide good, quality data indicating dog ownership is associated with reduced cardiac and all-cause mortality. While these non-randomised studies cannot ‘prove’ that adopting or owning a dog directly leads to reduced mortality, these robust findings are certainly at least suggestive of this.”
Looking to build on previous research, which identified a strong association between social isolation and lack of physical activity and poor health outcomes, researchers in both the study and meta-analysis sought to determine how dog ownership affected health outcomes.
Prior studies have shown that dog ownership alleviates social isolation, improves physical activity and even lowers blood pressure – leading researchers to believe dog owners could potentially have better cardiovascular outcomes compared to non-owners.
Researchers in this study compared the health outcomes of dog owners and non-owners after a heart attack or stroke using health data provided by the Swedish National Patient Register.
Patients studied were Swedish residents ages 40-85 who experienced a heart attack or ischemic stroke from 2001-2012.
An ischemic stroke is a stroke caused by a blockage cutting off the blood supply to the brain and accounts for around 85 percent of stroke cases, explains the Stroke Association.
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Compared to people who did not own a dog, researchers found that for dog owners:
- The risk of death for heart attack patients living alone after hospitalisation was 33 percent lower, and 15 percent lower for those living with a partner or child.
- The risk of death for stroke patients living alone after hospitalisation was 27 percent lower and 12 percent lower for those living with a partner or child.
The lower risk of death associated with dog ownership could be explained by an increase in physical activity and decreased depression and loneliness, both of which have been connected to dog ownership in previous studies.
As Tove Fall, D. V. M., professor at Uppsala University in Sweden, explains: “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.”
Fall added: “Furthermore, keeping a dog is a good motivation for physical activity, which is an important factor in rehabilitation and mental health.”
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The study does acknowledge a number of potential limitations, however, such as potential misclassifications of dog ownership in couples living together, death of a dog and change of ownership, all of which may influence the outcomes of the study.
In their concluding remarks, the study authors said: “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.”
Related research focusing on mood and life expectancy shows that happiness can significantly increase your longevity.
One study found that happier individuals had a 3.7 percent reduction in early death over a five-year study period.
Furthermore, a study of 180 Catholic nuns analysed their self-reported levels of happiness when they first entered the monastery and later compared these levels to their longevity.
Those who felt happiest at 22 years of age were 2.5 times more likely to still be alive six decades later.
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