As if we needed another reason to cuddle our dogs, the American Heart Association has gone ahead and given us one more anyway. According to data gleaned from 300,000 Swedish cardiac patients, researchers found that owning a dog cut the risk of a second cardiac episode by up to one-third. The most significant benefit of dog companionship was observed in single people, who were a whopping 33 percent less likely to experience a second cardiac event within 10 years. Overall, according to the AHA’s findings, heart patients from dog-owner households were 65 percent less likely to die from a cardiac event than their dogless counterparts.
Lead researcher Tove Fall delineated two categories of patients: those who suffered a heart attack and those who suffered an ischemic stroke. Fall looked at the recurrence of hospitalization from a subsequent cardiac event between 2001 and 2011. Fall and her fellow researchers then dissected data from single-person households versus households where the patient had a partner and/or children. Statistics are based on comparisons to cardiac patients without dogs, of which, according to the American Heart Association, 20 percent will experience a second cardiac episode within five years of their first heart attack or stroke.
Better Than Vegetables?
The health benefits of pet ownership have been long established, with major studies associating improved mental health, physical fitness, social engagement, and even job performance connected to having pets. Some benefits are self-evident, since having a dog, in particular, is correlated with more physical activity. Merely walking a dog twice per day can help humans achieve the American Medical Association’s guidelines for daily physical activity.
What makes the Swedish study rather remarkable is the sample size available for data collection. Some previous studies correlating reduced anxiety and job performance to pet ownership have had a few hundred participants, but no large-scale studies have approached the 300,000 mark.
As the news made the rounds on social media, most readers responded with a collective “duh!” All were effusive about the positive changes that their pets have made in their lives. The Gottman Institute, a relationship therapy education page, shared the study with their half a million followers. One named Carol Doyle remarked, “Looking after my sister[‘]s dog. My resting heart rate has dropped by ten beats in [three] weeks.” Many tagged their family members to encourage them to finally adopt a pet.
Companionship is the Cure
Another surprising angle of the study suggests that single-person households see double the benefit of dog ownership over two (or more)-person households. The American Heart Association suggests the discrepancy could have to do with the quality of companionship a canine provides. Partnered cardiac patients, by definition, are not as likely to be socially isolated as single people. One significant side benefit of caring for a dog is that of social engagement in the form of walks, parks, and pet sitters, thereby bolstering another important predictor of longevity.
Now that science has proven dogs can help lengthen human lives, researchers want to investigate ways to keep our furry friends around longer, too. In November 2019, the University of Washington and Texas A & M Schools of Veterinary Medicine launched a nationwide search for 10,000 canine participants to measure longevity factors in dogs. Their research banner, The Dog Aging Project, is supported through the National Institute on Aging, The National Institutes of Health, and private donations. The project has quickly amassed more than 6500 followers across social media to date.
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