The surprising secret to living better, longer

Plus, how to slash premature death risk by 25 percent

It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned my beagle, Remington, here. Though if you’ve been a reader of mine for a while, then you probably already know what a boundless source of joy he is in my life.

Sure, he can sometimes be a challenge. But he reminds me on a daily basis what unconditional love really is. And he’s always a faithful companion.

The rewards of that love and companionship, in my view, far outweigh the inconveniences on any given day of the week. And if you were to ask anyone with a beloved pet in their lives, they’re likely to tell you the exact same thing.

But according to the new National Poll on Healthy Aging, this is especially true for anyone over the age of 50. And for more reasons than most animal lovers might ever imagine…

A four-legged foil for chronic pain

More than half of all older Americans have at least one pet. And not surprisingly, this new poll shows that most of them credit their four-legged friends for a long list of benefits.1

In fact, nearly 90 percent reported that their pets helped them enjoy life and made them feel loved. A good three-quarters said that their pets reduced their stress levels and gave them a sense of purpose. And over 60 percent said that their pets provided them with more social opportunities and helped them keep to a routine.

Of course, these benefits would make life better at any age. But for an older person, they often mean the difference between sickness and health.

Case in point: Roughly six out of 10 seniors polled said that their pets made coping with the emotional and physical symptoms of aging easier. And more than a third reported that their pets distracted them from their pain.

Respondents in poorer health especially benefited from having a pet—with 70 percent of pet owners coping better, emotionally and physically, and nearly half enjoying distractions from their pain. (This reflects the findings of previous research, which shows that therapy dogs deliver significant improvements in emotional distress—not to mention clinically meaningful reductions in pain for roughly a quarter of patients.)2

And why wouldn’t they? Staring into your pet’s eyes for five minutes actually floods your body with oxytocin—the same “love hormone” that bonds a mother to her newborn baby in the first moments of life.3

But there’s also the fact that having a pet keeps you on your feet—especially if you have a dog. And as I always remind you, any form of physical activity is better than none when it comes to boosting longevity.

Medicine for your body and mind

A good 64 percent of pet owners—and nearly 80 percent of dog owners—said their pets help them stay active. Which lines up perfectly with previous research, showing that older adults who regularly walked a dog get more exercise, have lower body mass indexes (BMIs), and require fewer doctor visits than their pet-free peers.4

Not only that, but having a sense of purpose in caring for your pet reduces your risk of depression by giving you something meaningful to do. (There’s a reason so many people have a hard time retiring…)

Pets also reduce loneliness, which nearly half of all seniors report feeling on a regular basis. They also help keep your mind sharp.

Needless to say, this combination of benefits is quite powerful. Because let’s face it: Loneliness—no matter what age group—most definitely undermines healthy aging.

In fact, loneliness:

  • Increases the risk of chronic disease
  • Sets you up for premature death
  • Skyrockets inflammation and stress
  • Boosts a likelihood of substance abuse

And not by a small margin, either. In fact, research shows that isolation raises your risk of heart disease, stroke, and death by nearly a third across the board.

But recent studies also demonstrate that dog ownership, at least, has the exact opposite effect…

Dodge death with the wag of a tail

The influence that dog ownership has on cardiovascular risk is strong enough to have earned a scientific statement from the American Heart Association (AHA)—and you know how infrequently the AHA and I agree on anything.

On this one issue, however, even they can’t ignore the facts. And two well-designed studies, recently published in the AHA journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, perfectly explain why.

The first of these two studies looked at outcomes of dog owners after heart attacks and stroke. Researchers used data from the Swedish National Patient Register, from nearly 200,000 subjects between the ages of 40 to 85 who had suffered a heart attack or stroke between 2001 and 2012.

Compared to dog-free subjects, researchers found that dog owners benefited from a 33 percent lower risk of death if they lived alone after heart attack hospitalization, and a 15 percent lower risk if they lived with a partner or child after hospitalization.5

For stroke patients, outcomes were similar: Risk of death was 27 percent lower for dog owners who lived alone after hospitalization, and 12 percent lower for dog owners who lived with a partner or child.

In a separate analysis published in the same journal, researchers looked at 10 different studies, featuring data from close to four million people.

Nine of these studies compared mortality risk of dog owners versus non-owners. And four looked specifically at cardiovascular outcomes.

Ultimately, results revealed some distinct perks of dog ownership. In fact, dog owners were:

  • 25 percent less likely to die from any cause
  • 65 percent less likely to die after a heart attack
  • Nearly 30 percent less likely to die from any cardiovascular problem

This study didn’t look at potential influencing factors like better overall fitness or healthier lifestyles. So it can’t prove that dog ownership wards off death by itself…

But the conclusions certainly suggest as much. Which means that your four-legged friend may be saving your life—quite literally—as you read this.

Weighing the responsibility

Now, with all of that said, let’s face some facts: Pets aren’t for everyone. They’re a huge responsibility—one that requires time and money. And the poll I mentioned earlier addresses those drawbacks, too.

In fact, close to half of pet-free participants said they didn’t want to be tied down. (And I’ll admit, as much as I love Remington, he does make it difficult to travel.) While just under a quarter cited concerns about money or time.

Needless to say, these are all valid concerns. And ones that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Pet ownership requires commitment. And it’s not fair to bring home an animal if you aren’t willing (or able) to give it a safe, happy life.

Of course, the good news is that cats, birds, lizards, and fish aren’t quite so demanding in this department. And while a lot of this research focuses on dogs, the poll showed that any kind of pet can help older adults cope with the challenges of aging.

The bottom line: With a smart and loving dog like Remington, I can’t help but be biased. But if you ask me, pets are always worth it.

That said, if ownership simply isn’t an option for you, there are also pet therapy services that make house calls—many of which will bring a trained dog to visit you for up to an hour. And of course, local shelters and rescues are always looking for extra helping hands.

Being a pet owner requires a lot of time, energy, and devotion. But in return, our animal companions give back at least as much in physical and emotional health benefits. So give them all you’ve got… and let love do the rest.

Pets warm your heart—but should they warm your bed, too?

According to this latest poll, more than half of people who own pets let their furry friends sleep with them at night. (I admit, I’m one of those people.)

Of course, just because a lot of people do it, doesn’t mean it’s good for you. And on this subject, in particular, even pet owners are divided.

So I thought I’d take a moment to share what science has to say about the matter…

I’ll start with a 2017 study, published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. This research looked at 40 healthy adults who shared a bedroom with their dogs.

The subjects wore sleep tracking devices for a week. Results showed that those who shared a bed with their dogs slept easier than those whose dogs slept on the floor.7

Another recent study shows that dogs may actually be better bedfellows than humans—for women, at least.

A study of nearly 1,000 American women showed that just over half shared a bed with a dog, and nearly a third shared a bed with a cat. Meanwhile, nearly 60 percent shared the bed with a human partner.

And guess what? In this study, at least, women with dogs slept the best of the bunch—experiencing greater comfort and security, and fewer disruptions.8

So take this information and decide for yourself… as for me, I’ll continue catching my recommended seven to nine hours of shuteye, right alongside Remington.

References:

  1. Michigan Medicine – University of Michigan. “Poll: Pets help older adults cope with health issues, get active and connect with others: For some, time commitment, cost and allergies stand in the way of pet ownership.” Science Daily, 04/03/2019. (sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190403080514.htm)
  2. Marcus DA, et al. “Animal-assisted therapy at an outpatient pain management clinic.” Pain Med. 2012 Jan;13(1):45-57.
  3. Nagasawa, M, et al. “Social evolution. Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds.” Science. 2015 Apr 17;348(6232):333-6.
  4. Curl AL, et al. “Dog Walking, the Human-Animal Bond and Older Adults’ Physical Health.” Gerontologist. 2017 Oct 1;57(5):930-939.
  5. Mubanga M, et al. “Dog Ownership and Survival After a Major Cardiovascular Event: A Register-Based Prospective Study.” Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2019 Oct;12(10):e005342.
  6. Kramer CK, et al. “Dog Ownership and Survival: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2019 Oct;12(10):e005554.
  7. Patel SI, et al. “The Effect of Dogs on Human Sleep in the Home Sleep Environment.” Mayo Clin Proc. 2017 Sep;92(9):1368-1372.

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