Dog lovers know how much warmth and comfort their canine companions add to their lives, but did you know that a growing body of evidence from the last 25 years suggests that having a dog may help improve heart health. My dog Pippin, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, both gives and takes affection wonderfully, his is pure emotion. Dogs are the only other species that, like a human child, runs to its human when it is frightened, anxious or just pleased to see us. In the UK, 26% of people in the UK own a dog, making them by far the most popular pet. Here are some of the reasons dog ownership is associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Longer, healthy lives
Having a dog is associated with a lower risk of death from CVD or other causes, according to a 2017 study that followed 3.4 million people in Sweden. Researchers studied men and women between the ages of 40 and 80 and followed their health records (and whether they owned a dog) for about a dozen years. The study found that for people who lived alone, owning a dog can decrease their risk of death by 33% and their risk of cardiovascular-related death by 36%, compared to single people without a pet.
Tove Fall, professor of epidemiology at Uppsala University, and owner of a five-month-old Kooikerhondje puppy, said the health benefits of dog ownership appeared to be starkest for people who otherwise lived alone. “We see effects in the single households that are much stronger than in multiple-person households,” she said. “If you have a dog you neutralise the effects of living alone.”
The study cannot explain how dogs have a health-boosting impact, but the company alone may reduce stress and motivate people to live healthier lifestyles. In the study, Fall analysed the effects of different breeds and found that owners of dogs originally bred for hunting, such as terriers, retrievers, and scent hounds, had the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease.
Last year, the leader of Britain’s GPs, Helen Stokes-Lampard, warned that loneliness was as bad for human health as a long-term illness. The estimated 1.1 million lonely Britons are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those with good social networks, making loneliness as harmful to the nation’s health as diabetes. While people who live alone are not necessarily lonely, many in the Swedish study seemed to benefit disproportionately from having a dog around.
Lower stress levels
When stress comes your way, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which release energy-boosting blood sugar and epinephrine to get your heart and blood pumping. This was all well and good for our ancestors who needed quick bursts of speed to dodge predatory tigers and other physical threats. However, we no longer have to flee from lions or tigers, but our bodies response to a ‘threat’ remains exactly the same as it did thousands of years ago. This is a major part of what accounts for the high rates of stress-related disease. Living with long-term stress takes a toll on the body, raising our risk of heart disease and other dangerous conditions.
Contact with pets seems to counteract this stress response by lowering stress hormones and heart rate. They also lower anxiety and fear levels (psychological responses to stress) and elevate feelings of calmness. Studies have found that dogs can help ease stress and loneliness for seniors, as well as help calm pre-exam stress for college students and even reduce stress in the office.
Time spent with a dog can be linked to better cardiovascular health, possibly due to the stress-busting effect mentioned above. Studies (see references) show that dog owners have a lower risk of heart disease, including lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Dogs also benefit patients who already have cardiovascular disease. They’re not only four time more likely to be alive after a year if they own a dog, but they’re also more likely to survive a heart attack.
There is some evidence that owning a dog is associated with lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. A large study focusing on this question found that dog owners had lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels than non-owners, and that these differences weren’t explainable by diet, smoking, or body mass index (BMI). However, the reason for these differences is still not clear.
Dogs keep you fitIt almost goes with saying, but if you own a dog chances are you’re fitter and trimmer than your non-dog-walking counterparts and come closer to meeting recommended physical activity levels. One study of more than 2,000 adults found that regular dog walkers got more exercise and were less likely to be obese than those who didn’t walk a dog. In another study, older dog walkers (ages 71-82) walked faster and longer than non-pooch-walkers, plus they were more mobile at home.
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