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Dog Ownership: A Lifeline for Heart Attack and Stroke Survivors, Extending Life Expectancy

Updated: May 31, 2023

(filadendron/E+, Getty Images)

Dog ownership has been linked to longer life and improved cardiovascular outcomes, particularly for individuals who have experienced heart attacks or strokes and live alone, according to a recent study and meta-analysis published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, a journal of the American Heart Association.

The studies build upon prior research and support the conclusions of the American Heart Association's 2013 Scientific Statement on pet ownership and cardiovascular risk, which stated that owning a dog is associated with reduced factors contributing to cardiac risk and cardiovascular events. While these studies cannot definitively prove a causal relationship between dog ownership and reduced mortality, the robust findings suggest a positive association.

The researchers aimed to investigate the impact of dog ownership on health outcomes, considering the negative effects of social isolation and physical inactivity on patients. Previous studies have shown that owning a dog can alleviate social isolation, increase physical activity, and lower blood pressure, which led researchers to hypothesize that dog owners may experience better cardiovascular outcomes compared to non-owners.

The first study analyzed health data from the Swedish National Patient Register, comparing the outcomes of dog owners and non-owners who had experienced heart attacks or strokes. The results showed that dog owners living alone had a 33% lower risk of death after hospitalization for a heart attack and a 27% lower risk after hospitalization for a stroke. For dog owners living with a partner or child, the risks were 15% and 12% lower, respectively. The study included over 182,000 heart attack patients and nearly 155,000 stroke patients, with dog ownership confirmed through official dog ownership registration data.

The lower risk of death among dog owners could be attributed to increased physical activity, decreased depression, and reduced loneliness, which have been associated with owning a dog in previous studies. Social isolation is a known risk factor for poor health outcomes and premature death, and dog ownership can mitigate this by providing social interaction.

Although this study had a large sample size, there could be potential misclassifications of dog ownership in couples living together, as well as factors like the death of a dog or change of ownership that might have affected the outcomes. The researchers emphasize the need for further research to establish a causal relationship and caution against prescribing dogs for prevention without considering both the health benefits and the responsibilities of pet ownership.

The second study conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis, analyzing patient data from 10 studies involving over 3.8 million individuals. The results showed that dog owners had a 24% reduced risk of all-cause mortality, a 65% reduced risk of mortality after a heart attack, and a 31% reduced risk of mortality due to cardiovascular-related issues compared to non-owners. The studies included in the analysis examined both all-cause mortality and cardiovascular outcomes.

The findings were consistent with previous reports that highlighted the positive associations between dog ownership and increased physical exercise, lower blood pressure levels, and improved cholesterol profiles. The researchers suggest that the benefits of dog ownership, such as longer life and lower cardiovascular mortality, could be attributed to factors like increased physical activity and a healthier lifestyle. However, they acknowledge the need for interventional studies to further explore cardiovascular outcomes after adopting a dog, as well as the social and psychological benefits of dog ownership.

The author of the second study, Dr. Caroline Kramer, a dog owner herself, shared her personal experience, stating that owning a dog has increased her physical activity and brought joy and unconditional love to her daily routine. She suggests that an interventional study could shed more light on the topic and explore the specific benefits of dog ownership for cardiovascular health.


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