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Dog ownership linked with longer life, especially for heart patients

(Reuters Health) - Dog owners live longer, and canine companionship may be especially good for people with heart disease and those living alone, new research shows.

“We studied more than 3 million people, and the results are very significant,” Dr. Caroline K. Kramer of the University of Toronto Leadership Sinai Centre for Diabetes at Mt Sinai Hospital told Reuters Health by phone.

People who own dogs have lower blood pressure, healthier cholesterol levels and a milder stress response than those with canine-free homes, Kramer and her team note in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. Having a pet - even just a cricket in a cage - is also known to relieve stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness and social isolation. But studies looking at whether having a dog extends survival have had mixed results.

To investigate, Kramer’s team searched through medical literature dating back to 1950 and found 10 studies of dog ownership and survival including a total of 3.8 million people.

Overall, dog owners were 24% less likely to die over the next decade than non-dog owners. People who’d suffered a heart attack or other cardiovascular event had a 65% reduced risk of dying over the next decade if they owned a dog. Dog ownership reduced overall mortality from cardiovascular causes by 31%.

Increased physical activity plays a key role in the cardiovascular benefits of dog ownership, said Kramer, noting that her own step count has climbed “sky high” since she adopted Romeo, an energetic miniature schnauzer that she walks at least three times a day.

In another study in the same issue of the journal, Dr. Tove Fall of Uppsala University in Sweden and her colleagues looked at 181,696 people who had a heart attack between 2001 and 2012, and 154,617 who’d suffered a stroke over the same period. The heart attack patients who owned a dog and lived alone had a 33% lower risk of having another heart attack, while the risk was reduced by 15% for those who lived with a dog plus a partner or child. For stroke patients living solo, the risk of another stroke was 27% lower, while repeat stroke risk was 12% lower for dog owners who didn’t live alone.

“Given the magnitude of the potential benefit - and likely little or no harm - these findings should encourage clinicians to discuss pet adoption with their patients, particularly those with preexisting cardiovascular disease and those living by themselves,” Dr. Dhruv S. Kazi of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston writes in an editorial accompanying the study.

“We’ve known this forever, that pets make our lives better, but to know that the sum of it translates to better cardiovascular health is very exciting for those of us who like dogs and work in cardiology,” Kazi said in a phone interview. “I’ve wanted a dog for 40 years, and the data finally convinced me.”

Before adopting a dog, Kramer and Kazi agree, it’s essential to make sure you have the resources to care for it properly. “One has to make space in one’s life to be able to accommodate them before making that leap of faith,” Kazi said.

SOURCE: , and Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, online October 8, 2019.