Dear Doctor: I just heard about a study that says if you own a dog, you’ll do better after having a heart attack. Is that real, or is it an urban legend?
Dear Reader: We understand your skepticism, but, yes, it’s true that researchers recently had some good health news for dog owners. It arrived in a pair of studies published last October in Circulation, the American Heart Association’s journal.
According to the findings, people who kept a dog as a pet had measurably better health outcomes following a heart attack or a stroke than those who didn’t live with a canine companion. The studies also found that the dog owners in the study lived longer than nonowners. And though we hate to rain on the puppy parade, it turns out there’s an important caveat. The researchers made statistical adjustments for a number of factors, including income, age and geographic location. However, smoking, which is a serious risk factor in both heart disease and stroke, was not among them.
Even without that particular variable, the researchers concluded that dog owners fare better after a heart attack or a stroke. This means a smoother recovery with fewer complications and fewer additional hospitalizations. These benefits were more pronounced for people who lived alone -- that is, without other humans -- and for those whose heart attack or stroke was a repeat event. The study found that dog ownership decreased the risk of death by 15% for people recovering from a heart attack who shared a home with a partner or a child. That number rose to 33% for heart attack survivors who lived alone.
This association between dog ownership and improved health outcomes continued in the second study, which evaluated the general health data of 3.8 million people. The risk of death from any cause was 24% lower among dog owners, and their risk of developing cardiovascular disease dropped by 65%, the study found.
Why do dogs help us in this way? Studies have long shown that interacting with an animal lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, improves blood pressure and boosts mood. If you’ve ever been in a hospital when a therapy dog is present, you’ve seen the beneficial effects firsthand. And it’s not just the patients who line up for a moment of patting and paw-holding, but the nurses, doctors and support staff as well.
It’s also a fact that people with dogs stay more active. A Canadian study found that dog owners walked an average of 300 minutes per week, almost double the 168 minutes per week logged by nonowners. Social interaction is an important factor in good health, and dogs are great catalysts in that regard. It’s the rare dog owner who can complete a walk without at least a smile or hello from fellow pedestrians. The researchers mentioned all these benefits and said they look forward to future research on the subject. As dog lovers, so do we.
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