Owning a pet — particularly a dog — may help some people have a healthier heart, according to new research published in the September issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality & Outcomes.
For the study, a team of European and American researchers analyzed health and demographic information — including information on pet ownership — gathered from 1,769 people, aged 25 to 64, living in the city of Brno in the Czech Republic. The participants are volunteers in a research project that is looking for factors that might explain — and help reduce — the particularly high prevalence of cardiovascular disease in Eastern and Central Europe.
When they were recruited into that ongoing study in 2013 and 2014, none of the participants had a history of cardiovascular disease. Their health is being reassessed every five years until the study ends in 2030.
At the first five-year reassessment, conducted earlier this year, each person was given a “Life’s Simple 7” score, which is a tool developed by the American Heart Association to help individuals make changes in their life to improve their cardiovascular health. As its name implies, the score is based on seven metrics. Four are behavioral: smoking, diet, physical activity and body mass index (BMI). The other three are biological: fasting blood sugar (glucose) levels, blood cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
Other research has found that people with higher “Life’s Simple 7” scores tend to have a lower risk of developing heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Quite recently, researchers reported that higher scores are also linked to a lower risk of dementia.
The authors of the current study compared the “Life’s Simple 7” scores of the pet owners in the Czech study with those of the people in the study who didn’t own pets. They found that, in general, the pet owners were more physically active, had a healthier diet and had better blood sugar levels than those who didn’t own pets.
“The greatest benefits from having a pet were for those who owned a dog, independent of their age, sex and education level,” adds Andrea Maugeri, the study’s lead author and a researcher with the International Clinical Research Center at St. Anne’s University Hospital in Brno, in a released statement.
Unfortunately, the pet owners in the study, particularly the dog owners, were also more likely to be smokers than non-pet owners — a factor that reduced the overall positive association that the study found between dog ownership and cardiovascular health, Maurgeri and his colleagues say.
Limitations and implications
This study is observational, which means the results show only a correlation between dog ownership and better heart health, not a direct cause-and-effect relationship. Also, the study did not collect information about how long the people in the study owned their pets.
It could be, as the researchers acknowledge in their paper, that “owning a dog is only a marker of [a] healthier lifestyle” — in other words, that dog owners are just healthier to begin with than non-dog owners.
Still, the study’s results are supported by other research that has suggested dog ownership encourages more physical activity, reduces stress, improves self-esteem and increase social support — all factors that can lead to better health, including better cardiovascular health.
In 2013, the AHA reviewed the scientific literature on the possible health benefits of pet ownership and concluded that it might lead to a reduction of cardiovascular disease. The organization stressed, however, that improving your health shouldn’t be the primary reason for adopting, rescuing or purchasing a pet.
It’s easy to understand, however, how owning a dog could lead to a healthier heart for its owner, as Dr. Francisco Lopez-Jimenza, the study’s senior author and a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, told Good Morning America reporter Dr. Kimberly Duke.
“It’s very difficult not to increase the level of activity after you get a pet, in particular, a dog,” he said. “… It makes more sense … they move around. They force us to be active.”
FMI: You’ll find the study on the website for Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality & Outcomes.