They’re man’s best friend, and they may be one of the heart’s best allies as well.
A panel of heart disease experts convened by the American Heart Association (AHA) reviewed research linking heart health and owning a pet and found that owning a pet is “probably associated” with a lower risk of heart disease for those without a history of heart problems, and with greater survival rates among heart disease patients.
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The panel, chaired by Dr. Glenn Levine, a professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, released a scientific statement in favor of having a dog or cat to lower the risk of heart disease by helping people to be more physically active as well as reduce blood pressure and minimize the effects of stress. Previous studies showed that the companionship and close relationship that owners build with their pets can boost levels of anti-stress hormones that can increase resilience and help people to cope with stressful or traumatic situations. One of the studies found, for example, that those who adopted dogs enjoyed a drop in blood pressure, while another revealed that among 5,200 adults, those who owned dogs were 54% more likely to get recommended levels of exercise and be active than non-dog owners. That trend is supported by other studies that found that people who didn’t own dogs, but walked them frequently, were less likely to be obese.
According to the New York Times, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, however, that overall, pet owners are still just as likely to be overweight as people without pets. Pets aren’t a panacea against heart disease, it’s likely that taking care of them requires their owners to get more exercise, which can reduce stress, weight and blood pressure and benefit the heart. “If someone adopts a pet, but still sits on the couch and smokes and eats whatever they want and doesn’t control their blood pressure,” Levine told the Times, “that’s not a prudent strategy to decrease their cardiovascular risk.”
That’s why the AHA, while encouraged by the data, is not recommending that people get a pet and expect to improve their heart health. But if you already have one, especially a dog, the panel says you may enjoy a lower risk of heart disease compared to people who don’t own pets.
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The fact that people with heart disease showed some survival benefit if they had a pet was also intriguing, although more research should clarify whether the added years came from the exercise, the reduced stress, or some combination of both. “What’s less clear is whether the act of adopting or acquiring a pet could lead to a reduction in cardiovascular risk in those with pre-existing disease,” he and the panel members wrote in the statement. “Further research, including better quality studies, is needed to more definitively answer this question.”
You can read the AHA’s scientific statement here.