Dogs are really our best friends, according to a Swedish study that says that owning dogs can reduce heart disease. A study among 3.4 million people between the ages of 40 and 80 found that having a dog in the 12 years of the study was associated with a 23% reduction in heart disease death and a 20% lower risk of developing death from whatever cause. Previous studies have suggested that dogs alleviate social isolation and depression – both linked to an increased risk of heart disease and premature death.
Dog owners show better responses to stress (their blood pressure and pulse do not rise), have a higher degree of physical activity and a slightly lower cholesterol level. The American Heart Association was sufficiently influenced by an overview of dozens of studies to issue a statement in 2013, which stated that owning a dog was “likely” associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Their reluctance to endorse dog property more strongly is because most studies are observational – researchers note an association, but cannot prove a causal link. This means that other factors can explain why dog owners are healthier than, say, goldfish owners – for example, only people who are fit might buy primarily pets that need daily walkies.
Tove Fall, an epidemiologist and lead author of this latest study, says they have done their best to absorb any differences in education, existing poor health and lifestyles between people with and without dogs. The study found the biggest positive impact of having a dog was on people who live alone. “It seems that a dog can be a substitute for living with other people in terms of reducing the risk of dying,” Fall says. “Dogs encourage you to walk, they offer social support and they make life more meaningful. If you have a dog, you have more interaction with other people. If you get sick and go to the hospital and you have a dog, there is a huge motivation to go back home. “
Of course, getting a dog and looking at your couch while eating greasy food won’t reduce your risk of heart disease. And a toy dog looks cute, but also has no effect. Fall’s study showed that most health benefits could be achieved with retrievers or pointers. Until her German shorthaired pointer died last year, she walked 10 km with her most days. “In Sweden we have one of the lowest dog ownership percentages in Europe,” says Fall, who recently had a new puppy. “Maybe this increases the acceptance that dogs are important to people.”