November 20, 2017

Dog Owners Have a (Healthy) Heart

A recent study has concluded that there is a strong association between dog ownership and reduced risk for early death.
By Amanda Carrozza
According to Tove Fall, PhD, senior author of a study that aimed to clarify conflicting reports about the health benefits of dog ownership, keeping a canine companion could save your life — especially if you live alone.

In an interview with MedicalResearch.com, Dr. Fall, who is associate senior lecturer of epidemiology in the Department of Medical Sciences and the Science for Life Laboratory at Uppsala University in Sweden, noted that “loneliness and sedentary lifestyle are two major risk factors for cardiovascular disease and mortality, but are notoriously difficult to prevent in the general population.”

Dr. Fall and her team used national registries to study 3.4 million Swedish adults between the ages of 40 and 80 with no known cardiovascular disease. During the 12-year follow-up, they found that dogs may be helpful in reducing cardiovascular risk by providing a nonhuman form of social support and increasing physical activity.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. Overall, the investigators concluded that those who owned a dog had a 20% reduced risk of death from any cause and a 23% reduced risk of death from cardiac disease. Interestingly, the greatest protection was found among those who owned dogs of the hunting breeds.

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After drilling down further, the researchers discovered that people living alone gained the most benefits from dog ownership. When compared with single individuals without a dog, single dog owners experienced a 33% decreased risk of death. Their probability of death due to a cardiovascular condition was 36% lower and their chance of suffering a heart attack was reduced by 11%.

Dog owners who did not live alone reaped some benefits from dog ownership, albeit not as drastic. Compared with people living in multiperson households without a dog, the risk of death in individuals in multiperson homes with a dog was 11% lower and their risk of cardiovascular death decreased by 15%. The study did not conclude, however, that dog owners living in multiperson homes experienced the same reduced risk of heart attack as their single counter-parts.

In a university press release, Dr. Fall pointed to a few reasons why dog owners might experience significantly lower mortality rates. “We know that dog owners in general have a higher level of physical activity, which could be one explanation [for] the observed results. Other explanations include an increased well-being and social contacts or effects of the dog on the bacterial microbiome in the owner.”

For future exploration, Dr. Fall and her team plan to follow up with studies on the effect of dog ownership on hypertension as well as the acute cardiovascular risk after losing a pet to acute disease. They are also studying the gut microbiome of dog owners.

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