Dogs… those of us with one can’t imagine life without them. Those of us without one are usually perfectly content not to have to turn our lives over to regular feeding times, daily walks, endless grooming, and a constant stream of slobber and effluence. If you’re in the second category, you may need to revise your opinion- at least if the evidence that suggests dogs are key to healthy aging is true.
In a recent report on Dogster, the website for all thing canine-related, Jackie Brown posited that dogs are vital to long term health and vitality. Using evidence from a poll conducted by the University of Michigan, Brown claimed that owning a pet can lead to some pretty significant health benefits. Of the owners surveyed, 79% claimed owning a pet reduced stress, 73% reported an improved sense of purpose, 65% felt a stronger connection to others, 64% believed their dog made them more active, and 60% felt their dog helped them cope with physical and emotional issues.
In another study (also explained by the ever-helpful Dogster), it was found that owning a dog has a calculable impact on physical health, with pet owners reporting fewer incidences of high blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and triglycerides, and a reduced likelihood of developing heart disease compared to those who don’t own a pet. Yet another study has found that heart attack victims tend to live a whole year longer if they own a pet than if they don’t. So, what exactly is so magical about our canine companions that they can so positively influence our health? Let’s take a look….
A Man’s Best Friend
First of all, let’s clear one thing up. Getting a dog isn’t a guarantee of a long and healthy life. There is nothing inherently or mystically life-giving about a canine- rather, as Elizabeth Pegg Frates, MD, and director at the Spaulding Stroke Research and Recovery Institute, point outs, it’s the relationship we forge with our pets that’s at the root of their purported health benefits. “We didn’t want to create the impression that simply getting a dog automatically leads to improved health,” she told Dogster. “It’s, in fact, the relationship that delivers the benefits — we, as pet owners, need to play an active role. To date, numerous pet owners have expressed enormous gratitude that someone has finally put into print what they’ve realized all along.” So, if it’s the connection we have with our pets that’s responsible for all those excellent health benefits, what aspects of the relationship, in particular, should we look to nurture to maximize the effect?
Get a dog, develop a relationship with said dog, and pretty soon you’ll do anything to keep it happy. And what keeps a dog happier than anything else (well, other than food, maybe)? Walkies. You may be happy enough to neglect your own exercise routine, but it’ll prove a lot harder not to pull on your sneakers and get active when you have a pet to look after than when you don’t. In a study (yes, another one) by the American Heart Association (AHA), it was found that a dog helps the obese overcome their embarrassment of exercising in public, and provides a valuable way of forcing the physically unfit to get active. As a result of their findings, the AHA concluded pet ownership represents “a reasonable strategy for reducing heart-disease risk.”
Want to know the biggest killer in the western world? Stress. Ok, that may not strictly be speaking be true, but according to medical experts, it’s not far off. Stress not only affects our mental health, but it’s also directly correlated to increased blood pressure, heart disease, recurring infections, and various other nasties. One of the easiest ways to tackle stress and avoid these kinds of complications is to develop a lasting, fulfilling bond with others- regardless of whether those others are of the two-legged variety or the four.
There’s a little-known chemical called oxytocin that, when released into our bloodstream, causes all kinds of good stuff to happen. As well as thwarting depressing, oxytocin (also known as the “bliss,” “love,” or “bonding” hormone), inhibits the release of cortisol, a harmful stress hormone that can cause all kinds of damage to our mood and body over time. Just 10 minutes of stroking, petting or playing with your dog can encourage oxytocin production, leaving you (and your pet) relaxed, happy and de-stressed.
Decreased independence in the elderly is strongly correlated with a decline in overall health. A loss of interest in daily activities (even basic ones like feeding or dressing ourselves) can lead swiftly to a loss of muscle tone, a decreased resistance to illnesses, and a decline in mental health. Having a pet to look after can halt or even reverse the decline, with seniors who own a dog found to be far more capable of looking after themselves than those without. It’s believed having to look after the well-being of another reminds us that we should probably be looking after ourselves in the same way.
Living in the Moment
The 2000s have seen a return to age-old practices like yoga, meditation and “mindfulness”, all three of which are thought to encourage us to live in the here and now and appreciate the moment rather than worrying about the future. Observing your dog’s interactions with nature (the joy they have in rolling around on a damp lawn, the pleasure on their faces as they feel the sunshine warm their backs) can teach us to savor the moment and appreciate the little things in life in the same way. End result? Better moods, increased resistance to stress, and, if the reports are to be believed, a much healthier old age.