Dog ownership can decrease a single adult’s risk of death by 33 percent
By Christine Green
Kathy Weston of Brockport can’t live without her furry friends, Oreo and Lady.
“They give me a reason to get up in the morning and a reason to go for a walk every day. They give me something to look after and care for and gush over.”
But Weston’s dogs aren’t just loveable companions. Her dogs are actually prolonging her life.
A 2017 Swedish study followed over three million adults for 12 years. The study — “Dog ownership and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death – a nationwide cohort study,” published in November 2017 — concluded that owning a dog can decrease a single adult’s risk of death by 33 percent.
This study wasn’t a surprise to local dog owners like Weston. They already knew what so many devoted pet owners knew: dogs not only enhance their lives emotionally they also improve overall health.
How do dogs specifically help our health and longevity?
The Swedish researchers mentioned that dogs may be beneficial in reducing cardiovascular risk in their owners by encouraging outdoor physical exercise. They pointed to a 2013 review of published studies about dog ownership — “Dog Ownership and Physical Activity: A Review of the Evidence,” published in July 2013. This review showed that about 60 percent of dog owners walked their dogs at least four times a week.
Kelly Myers of Henrietta said that her dog Bailey has motivated her to get more exercise since her family adopted her from One Love Pet Adoptions in Scottsville five years ago.
“I especially enjoy walking her in all seasons. I wouldn’t normally be outside for a 30 minute walk on a 20 degree day, but the dog loves it, so we go.”
Phil Stein, an internal medicine staff physician at Rochester Regional Health, cautioned that humans need to do more than just walk our dogs, though. He noted that people really need “species specific” exercise, “where you get your heart rate up to some reasonable percentage of your maximum and keep it there for 20-30 minutes.” No one should only rely on dog walking to increase physical health.
But he wholeheartedly agreed that dog ownership is indeed very beneficial to his patients in other ways. He has observed many patients who, like Weston, feel a greater sense of overall purpose because of their dogs:
“I have seen evidence of psychological benefits in a number of my patients, particularly older folks who have lost a spouse and now find themselves living alone. The companionship and love shared with their dogs has dispelled their loneliness, kept love in their lives, and imparted an additional sense of purpose that has faded with age also helping to keep them more active than they might otherwise be.”
In other words, by decreasing loneliness dogs may increase emotional and mental wellness in their owners.
And people who may have a sense of social isolation prior to owning a dog often reconnect or rediscover the community around them. Myers, the Henrietta resident, has definitely noticed a greater sense of community because of Bailey and her daily walks. Myers and her family are now more attuned to the lives of their neighbors and feel more connected to the people they encounter on their walks.
“We have a broader sense of ownership and care of our neighborhood,” said Myers. “We have a sense of belonging that was missing, even though we had lived here for over 10 years before getting a dog.”
In addition to combating loneliness and social isolation, dog ownership tends to decrease everyday stress. The authors of the Swedish study noted that dog ownership has also been associated with elevated parasympathetic nervous system activity and diminished activity in the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest and digestion in the body and the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the stress inducing “fight or flight” response. By stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and controlling the sympathetic nervous system dogs reduce stress in their owners.
Stein is personally very aware of this reduced stress response when he is around his 10-year-old Labrador retriever, Daisy. He fondly referred to her as, “the quiet calming agent diverting my attention to all that is good in life and away from the stress or conflicts that are giving me headaches. I know without doing the experiments that spending time with her lowers my blood pressure, relieves my stress, and counters my tendency to feel depressed or anxious.”
Physician Stein’s prescription for a happier healthy life is plenty of “Vitamin C for canine.”