Do Companion Animals Help Us Live Longer?


Few bonds are greater than those between people and their pets.

And while animals can serve as a vector of potentially serious pathogens, recent research points to many disease-protective effects associated with growing up around animals or having companion animals as an adult.

Aside from the obvious benefits conferred by service dogs and therapy animals, how can animals benefit our health?

Pets and Heart Health

A study prompted by the recent American Heart Association statement that “There are scant data on pet ownership and survival in people without established cardiovascular disease (CVD),” led an investigation by Georgia Southern University researchers of 3,964 men and women aged 50 and older without major medical conditions who were followed for up to 18 years.1 They found that having a pet was associated among women with a 31% lower risk of cardiovascular death and a 46% lower risk of death from stroke compared to not having a pet. After adjusting for physical activity, cat companionship was associated with a 38% decreased risk of cardiovascular disease mortality and a 78% lower risk of dying from stroke, while dogs were associated with an 18% lower risk of cardiovascular disease death and a 24% lower risk of stroke mortality. The authors suggest that “The protection pets confer may not be from physical activities, but possibly due to personality of the pet owners or stress-relieving effects of animal companionship.”

In a Chinese population, dog ownership was associated with a greater protective effect against coronary artery disease than cat ownership, according to a survey conducted among 561 individuals who underwent coronary arteriography.2 Having a pet was associated with half the risk of coronary artery disease compared to the risk experienced by those who did not have a pet. Subjects who had cats had a 26% lower risk of coronary artery disease and having a dog was associated with a 58% lower risk after adjustment for a number of factors, including physical activity levels. Increased duration of pet ownership and time spent playing with pets were associated with decreases in coronary artery disease risk. In their discussion of the findings, the authors note that some studies have suggested that hormonal changes, including decreased cortisol and an increase in oxytocin, could underlie the heart-protective effect of animal companionship.

In a study that involved 369 participants in the Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial (which enrolled heart attack patients with asymptomatic ventricular arrhythmias), 1% of dog owners died within a one-year period compared to 7% of nonowners.3 And in 240 married couples, pet owners had lower heart rate and blood pressure during periods of rest and smaller increases in these factors during physical or mental stress in comparison to those without pets.4 The lowest reactivity and quickest recovery was observed to occur during conditions in which the pet was present.

Pets and Allergies

The high hygienic standards of Western countries are associated with decreased exposure to microorganisms. A healthy immune system develops during childhood environmental exposure in response to a variety of challenges. While some people have allergies that prevent them from adopting a dog or a cat, the presence of pets in the home during childhood might actually help prevent allergies. According to a recent review, “The immune tolerance of many modern city dwellers is insufficiently developed, predisposing the skin and mucous membranes to allergic inflammation. There is no need in infancy to avoid animals, and animal contacts in early childhood rather protect from the development of allergies.”5

Pet Companionship, Brain Health, and Longevity 

Interestingly, in an investigation that included 1,846 Norwegians, those who grew up with cats in their households had a 44% lower adjusted risk of developing the autoimmune disease multiple sclerosis (MS) compared to those who did not have a cat.6

Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) is one of the most common causes of mortality among epileptics with uncontrolled, long-standing disease. In a study of 1,092 epilepsy patients among whom 1% experienced SUDEP, none of the SUDEP patients had pets in their homes at the time of death, while 61% of those who did not experience SUDEP were pet owners.7 The authors remark that companion animals can buffer reactivity against stress and diminish stress perception, which may reduce seizure frequency and arrhythmias associated with SUDEP.

Lastly, novel medical therapies for companion animals that are more rapidly available than those that must submit to the approval process for human use could further progress against disease and aging. “Companion animals may provide an optimal intermediate between laboratory models and humans,” M. Kaeberlein writes in an article titled, “The Biology of Aging: Citizen Scientists and Their Pets as a Bridge Between Research on Model Organisms and Human Subjects.” “By improving healthy longevity in companion animals, important insights will be gained regarding human aging while improving the quality of life for people and their pets.”8

“Cross-sectional studies indicate correlations between pet ownership and numerous aspects of positive health outcomes, including improvements on cardiovascular measures and decreases in loneliness,” writes R. L. Matchock in a review published in 2015. “Quasi-experimental studies and better controlled experimental studies corroborate these associations and suggest that owning and/or interacting with a pet may be causally related to some positive health outcomes.”

“The value of pet ownership and animal-assisted therapy (AAT), as a nonpharmacological treatment modality, augmentation to traditional treatment, and healthy preventive behavior (in the case of pet ownership), is starting to be realized,” he concludes.9

While animal companionship may improve humans’ health, humans, in turn, are responsible for their companion animals’ health. Good diets, comprehensive nutritional supplements, veterinary care, environmental enrichment and contact with humans and/or other animals are all essential to companion animal well-being.

References

  1. Ogechi I et al. High Blood Press Cardiovasc Prev. 2016 Sep;23(3):245-53.
  2. Xie ZY et al. Medicine (Baltimore). 2017 Mar;96(13):e6466.
  3. Friedmann E et al. Am J Cardiol. 1995 Dec 15;76(17):1213-7.
  4. Allen K et al. Psychosom Med. 2002 Sep-Oct;64(5):727-39.
  5. Haahtela T. Duodecim. 2016;132(13-14):1253-8.
  6. Gustavsen MW et al. BMC Neurol. 2014 Oct 3;14:196.
  7. Terra VC et al. Seizure. 2012 Oct;21(8):649-51.
  8. Kaeberlein M. Vet Pathol. 2016 Mar;53(2):291-8.
  9. Matchock R. L. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2015 Sep;28(5):386-92.

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