There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that says having a dog can be good for our health. Dogs improve our moods and reduce stress. But does having a dog as a companion help us live well into our 80’s, 90’s or even longer?
In 2013, the American Heart Association (AHA) issued a statement that owning a dog could help lower the risk of heart disease. The AHA noted, “Cross-sectional studies show that dog owners engage in more physical activity and walking and are more likely to achieve the recommended level of physical activity than non-owners of dogs.” Dog can be good for blood pressure, too. “A psychologist from Queen’s University, Belfast, said dog owners tended to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol…regular ‘walkies’ may partly explain the difference,” the BBC reported.
Dogs are regular visitors to hospitals and nursing homes; they’re the ultimate in mobile therapy. The Mayo Clinic has over a dozen dogs in its Caring Canines program. The dogs help reduce the stress and anxiety related to hospital visits. Once you’re out of the hospital, dogs can make a difference, too. The AHA statement noted a study of one-year survival rates among heart-attack patients. “Dog ownership was strongly associated with decreased mortality, with the likelihood of mortality being 4.05 times greater for dog non-owners than for dog owners.” Those are some strong odds.
In a study of heart-attack patients, “Dog ownership was strongly associated with decreased mortality, with the likelihood of mortality being 4.05 times greater for dog non-owners than for dog owners.”
In a roundup of several studies on the health benefits of dogs, The Atlantic reported on a few more interesting statistics. “Surveys targeted at pet owners 60 years and older showed less stress and loneliness, better nutrition, and a stronger focus on the present.”
Caring for a dog creates structure in the day. “Activities in the care-taking role of a dog give older individuals a sense of responsibility and purpose that contributes to their overall well-being,” reported The Atlantic. “Seniors walking a dog enjoy a boost in parasympathetic nervous system activity, the region of the brain that supports calm and rest in the body.” Again, there are health benefits to all those walks. So it appears that, for seniors, taking care of a dog means taking better care of themselves.
So what do these studies really mean? “The evidence reviewed by the AHA indicates that dog owners are more likely to exercise, have a better cholesterol profile, have lower blood pressure, be less vulnerable to the physical effects of stress, and be more likely to survive a heart attack,” according to the Harvard Health blog.
“But most of the evidence is observational,” The New York Times wrote, “which makes it impossible to rule out the prospect that people who are healthier and more active in the first place are simply more likely to bring a dog or cat into their home.” Indeed, Harvard Health also noted, “It’s possible that healthier people—or those who are making the kinds of lifestyle changes that reduce heart risk—are more likely to have a dog than are people in frail health.” So maybe you’re already healthy. Or maybe the dog nudges you to become healthier.
“It’s possible that healthier people—or those who are making the kinds of lifestyle changes that reduce heart risk—are more likely to have a dog than are people in frail health.”
This brings us back to our original question: Can a dog help us live longer? Getting a dog is certainly a lifestyle change. Usually it changes our lives for the better: getting us off the sofa, adding some structure to our day and giving us some perspective. Although there are no significant studies on the lifespan of dog owners, individual studies point to the benefits of dogs for our own heart health, recovery and general well-being. So unless you have a terrible allergy to dog dander: Yes, having a dog can help you live longer. It definitely couldn’t hurt.