Many dog owners secretly suspect that they are better off for owning their pup, but they may not realize that science agrees. Recent research shows that our dogs may help us live longer, healthier, happier lives.
Dogs Can Bring Longer Life
Past research has tried to find out whether pets can affect a person’s lifespan. However, many of these studies were small, inconclusive, or the results of different studies contradicted each other. Therefore, two groups of researchers examined larger groups of people to try to come up with a better answer.
In one new study, researchers combined many past experiments into one large group . This new analysis contained information about nearly 4 million people! Researchers compared the lifespans of pet owners versus non-pet owners. The people with dogs had a 24% lower chance of dying over the course of the studies. This reduced risk was even stronger when the researchers looked at only deaths due to heart conditions. People with a four-legged friend were 31% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.
The second study tied an even closer link between dog ownership and death related to heart conditions . When a person has one heart attack or stroke, they are a lot more likely to have another, so this research looked at over 180,000 people who had previously experienced a heart attack or stroke. Dog owners were less likely to have another heart attack and 21% less likely to die. Interestingly, the effect was even stronger for people who lived alone, compared to people who lived with a partner or child. This research shows that dogs may help all of us live longer, possibly due to better cardiovascular health.
Dogs and Heart Health
There are several reasons why there may be a link between having a dog and having good heart health:
• People with dogs are more physically active . Your dog’s needs give you a good reason to get off the couch and go for a walk. Exercise leads to lower blood pressure and better cholesterol levels, which make a person’s heart and blood vessels healthier.
• Having a dog tends to make a person spend more time outside, whether this means walking around the block or going to a local park. Hanging out in the great outdoors is also linked to better health .
• Sharing your home with a pet may lead to less stress, which can improve heart function. In one study, people were able to reduce their blood pressure after they adopted a pet . Having normal blood pressure levels has been linked to having a longer lifespan .
It appears that pets, and in particular dogs, give people more heart health and lead to a longer life. The American Heart Association has even said that dog ownership can help reduce a person’s risk of heart disease, when combined with other established treatments .
The Role of Pets in Mental Health
How else can pets make us healthier? One way is that they boost our mental health, which has also been linked to living a longer life.
One study found that when people played with their dogs, their brains made more oxytocin . Additionally, the stronger a person’s relationship with their dog, the more oxytocin they produced. Oxytocin is a hormone that was first discovered to have a role in pregnancy and mother-baby bonding. Now, we know that it is involved in other types of social relationships as well. Oxytocin influences our happiness and willingness to trust and love others . It makes sense that this hormone is also involved in bonding with our pets. Some experts have found that relationships with our pets are often similar to those of a parent and child, and have elements of unconditional love and acceptance .
Pets can also lift our spirits. People who own pets, and especially people who own dogs, have reported having better mental health and feeling more satisfied with their lives . Pet owners tend to have lower rates of depression as well .
Dogs play important social roles in our lives. Many people are just as attached to our animal companions as we are to our human ones, if not more so. It’s not uncommon for people to feel like their pet is a member of their family. Especially for people who live alone or are more disconnected from other people, pets can ease feelings of loneliness and isolation . This is very important, especially as we get older. Loneliness has been linked to worse health, including decreased mental ability, worse heart health, and Alzheimer’s disease . Pets may help protect us against these things as we age, giving us more time to live healthfully. And this effect is not only limited to dogs – even taking care of pet crickets has been shown to boost mental health for older people !
Thinking about boosting and maintaining mental health is important for people who want to live longer. People with serious mental illness may die 14-32 years sooner . They are more likely to get chronic diseases, which may make them sicker earlier on in life and not live as long. Even people with less severe mental illness have a greater risk of illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease. Among all people with mental disorders, the men have a shorter lifespan by 10 years, and women live an average of seven years less . Taking steps to address mental health can make a big difference. Getting a dog may play an important role in addressing health conditions that can take years off of a person’s life.
Our Pets May Help Us Live a Long Time
In addition to better heart health and better mental health, many other health benefits have also been reported for people who own pets. These include: 
• Reduced dementia in nursing home residents
• Less agitation and aggression
• Lower pain levels
• Increased mindfulness
• Lower risk of sudden death in people with epilepsy
• Less anxiety, depression, and anger in people who have experienced trauma
• Less stress hormones such as cortisol, and increased dopamine
Many of these things play a role in living a long and happy life. Dogs may not completely protect us from sickness and death, but they can play an important part in our healthy lifestyles. Our canine companions have definitely earned the title of man’s best friend.
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