Pets: Add years to your life and life to your years by owning an animal

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By Kim Gilliam

Owning a dog is associated with an increased likelihood of living longer, especially among people who have previously had a heart attack or stroke, according to two new studies by the American Heart Association.

Researchers determined that dog owners across the board experienced lower rates of death from heart attacks or strokes. One of the studies, conducted in Sweden between 2001 and 2012 using the country’s National Patient Register, found dog owners tended to have a “better outcome after a major cardiovascular event.”

Although it did not prove cause and effect, dog owners had a 33 percent lower risk of death after being hospitalized by a heart attack if they lived alone compared to non-owners. Dog owners also had a 15 percent lower risk if they lived with a partner or child compared to non-owners. The results were similar for those who were treated for a stroke. This builds upon the conclusions of “Pet ownership and cardiovascular risk,” a 2013 AHA scientific statement that associated dog ownership with reductions in factors that contribute to cardiac risk and cardiovascular events.

“While these non-randomized studies cannot prove that adopting or owning a dog directly leads to reduced mortality, these robust findings are certainly at least suggestive of this,” Dr. Glenn N. Levine said in a statement for the AHA.

In a second scientific review, researchers looked at data from 3.8 million patients taken from 10 other studies and found that dog owners experienced a 24 percent reduced risk of death from all causes, a 65 percent reduced risk of death following a heart attack and a 31 percent reduced risk of death due to cardiovascular problems.

Having a dog to care for increases physical activity, improves blood pressure and cholesterol levels and also reduces social isolation, which can be key to the recovery for heart attack and stroke survivors.

Studies have found pet owners who walk their dogs get up to 30 more minutes of exercise a day, compared to non-dog owners, and that just the effect of petting a dog can reduce one’s blood pressure as much as a medication. Other studies suggest dogs provide companionship and affection, which can reduce anxiety and depression. That’s especially important after a major illness, such as a heart attack or stroke.

A number of cardiologists who believe in the benefits of dog ownership prescribe a dog for their patients if they believe the person can appropriately care for a pet.

For the cat lovers out there, the act of petting a cat releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone or “cuddle chemical,” which can make you feel less stressed, according to Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and author of “The Stress-Proof Brain.”

Researchers also noted a link between cat ownership and a decreased risk of dying from heart attack or stroke in a study published in the Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology. Even the sound of a cat’s purr can calm nerves and lower blood pressure.

More recently, an Indiana University study found that watching cat videos resulted in increased energy, positive emotions and decreased negative feelings – so it looks like the social media cat video craze is actually justified.

The writer co-owns Frolick Dogs, an indoor dog gym in Alexandria, with her husband, Kevin Gilliam.

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