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Does having a dog help you live longer? - (9/1/2020)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

The pharmacist did not encourage animals in his store. But, Annie was a unique soul. Sleek and intelligent, she walked with Mr. Hall everywhere he went. “Want a cookie?” the pharmacist asked Annie, “Give me a shake!” She then extended her forepaw and, gratefully, accepted the meaty biscuit. 

Mr. Hall, 76, lived alone in a small house on Winesburg Street, which was just on the town's edge. After his wife died, he felt vulnerable when leaving his home and, therefore, recruited various services to bring him meals and medication. Not long ago, his neighbors were moving four states away, and they could not take Annie. Mr. Hall, who already knew the dog, immediately agreed to take her in. "She knew the neighborhood, and I knew her temperament,” Mr. Hall reasoned. “Besides, I didn’t think she was getting enough attention from her previous owners.”

As many older people do, Mr. Hall has various pre-existing health conditions, mainly cardiovascular. While he did have a heart attack scare three years ago, he was nevertheless remiss in regularly taking his medications. "Hey, Mr. Hall," the pharmacist would shout when he saw him after his attack. “Don’t you need a few pills?” “Naw, I got ten, twelve left, I guess,” the gentleman would reply. These days were different. Mr. Hall had a different outlook on life. Each day, he would walk around Annie the 4-block trip between his house and the center of town. Hence, he was more likely to be on schedule with his medications, and he now shopped for his own food. Better medication adherence, plus moderate exercise, equals a lower risk of cardiovascular events, was the pharmacist's creed.    

Is there a link between an older person, such as Mr. Hall, and the acquisition of a pet, like Annie? According to a 2019 report issued by the American Heart Association (AHA), one can live longer if one lives with a dog compared with people who live alone. The AHA report revealed that not only do dog owners tend to live longer than non-owners do, they also frequently recover better from heart attacks and strokes. Dog owners are 31% less likely to succumb to a heart attack or stroke than non-dog owners do. And if you assume that living with another person – say a spouse, partner, or adult child – will extend your life, heads up! The statistics indicate otherwise.  Heart attack survivors who live alone had a 33% reduced risk of death if they owned a dog, while survivors who lived with someone else (a partner or child) had a only 15% reduced risk. Stroke survivors who lived by themselves had a 27% reduced risk of death if they owned a dog, while survivors who lived with someone else had a mere 12% reduced risk. 

How are these benefits possible? Research shows that individuals who walk their dogs get significantly more exercise than those who do not. And there’s a bonus: Pets can lessen social anxiety and encourage us to interact more with other humans. Perhaps that is the reason why dog owners report less loneliness, depression, and social isolation. As for living with a spouse or other adult, both of you may become “couch potatoes,” becoming sedentary, and eating the wrong foods. Of course, while tempting, one need not shuck the missus out the back door in exchange for a raucous terrier. Do not accept the first dog you see unless it is a match made in heaven. The dog should be healthy, tame, and has a disposition similar to your own. On the brink of 80, one does not need a hyperactive border collie who wants to scale hurdles while all you want is a mutt with whom to watch TV and go on an occasional walk, like Mr. Hall and Annie. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.

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