While the connection between dog ownership and well-being isn't new, recent evidence illuminates the different ways our four-legged friends can be an ally in helping us age gracefully and stay healthy as we grow older. Here are six of their most powerful longevity benefits.
Owning a dog can lead to a healthier heart
Many studies have explored the impact of dog ownership on cardiovascular health. In recognition of these studies, the American Heart Association (AHA) even issued a scientific statement back in 2013 linking dog ownership to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. More recently, a meta-analysis published in the scientific journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes found that owning a dog is associated with a 17 percent lower risk of death, especially deaths caused by cardiovascular disease, which were found to be 20 percent less likely.
Dog owners are more active
The connection between taking care of a dog and being more physically active doesn’t come as a surprise to Glenn Levine, MD, a cardiologist and lead author of the AHA scientific statement. This is because most people who own a dog will take it for regular walks, and “increased physical activity is clearly beneficial to cardiovascular risk and cardiovascular health,” he says.
This increased activity—owners take an average of 2,700 more steps daily compared to those without dogs—helps people meet the target of 150 minutes of weekly moderate physical activity recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, this dog-owning perk doesn't extend to those who opt for the “backyard roaming” exercise plan for their pups.
Still, even the regular need to bend down to pick up toys (and poops) helps build squatting mobility and strength, which can create functional stability throughout the lower body and core.
Interacting with a dog decreases stress
Have you ever wondered why you feel calmer after stroking a dog? That’s because simply interacting with a dog activates the parasympathetic nervous system, decreasing stress and increasing feelings of relaxation.
“It is not implausible to speculate that people who own dogs have one more companion, are less lonely if they're living single, probably have less anxiety. We know dogs are a good ‘treatment’ for acute stress,” says Dr. Levine. And this backs up those heart health benefits that Fido can offer, too: While “negative psychological health is associated with increased cardiovascular risk, on the flip side, positive psychological health is associated with better cardiovascular risk,” Dr. Levine adds.
Dogs are motivators for self-care and healthy routines
Daily dog care routines, which include feeding, walking, and grooming, provide structure and a sense of purpose, which is important for mental well-being, especially as we get older. However, dogs are more than just companions. According to Dr. Levine, the sense of responsibility we feel toward our pets can inspire us to take better care of ourselves, encouraging us to adopt healthier habits like smoking less, adhering to medication regimens, and attending medical appointments and health screenings.
Dog owners have better cognitive health
A recent study tracking the well-being of a group of pet owners over several years found a link between dog ownership and better cognition. While for most people, cognitive function deteriorates with age, dog owners had increased cognitive abilities as measured on two tests—the Boston naming test, which assesses language, and the Digit Symbol Substitution test, which correlates with a person’s ability to do everyday tasks.
What particularly surprised Erika Friedmann, PhD, the study’s lead author, was that there was no significant difference in cognitive changes between people who walked their dogs and those who didn’t. While this suggests once again that the benefits of dog ownership go beyond the extra exercise, more studies are needed to confirm this.
Having a dog can create a stronger social life
Have you ever noticed how dogs can spark conversations with others while you're out and about? Dog walking opens the door to a better social life by improving connections with others and reducing isolation. In a 10-day British experiment, a study participant had three times more interactions on the days she was accompanied by a (non-attention-seeking) dog compared to the days she went about her activities alone. And when it came to striking up conversations with strangers? The presence of the dog was a game-changer, leading to 65 interactions over five days compared to just three without the dog!
While experts advise against adopting dogs solely for health benefits, Dr. Friedmann highlights the importance of enabling older people to keep their dogs as long as possible, by, for example designing age-friendly communities that accommodate dogs, providing assistance such as dog walkers, and ensuring the safety and well-being of dogs when their owners are hospitalized. Such an approach could go a long way to keeping dog owners healthier—and happier—for longer.
- Levine, Glenn N et al. “Pet ownership and cardiovascular risk: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association.” Circulation vol. 127,23 (2013): 2353-63. doi:10.1161/CIR.0b013e31829201e1
- Kramer, Caroline K et al. “Dog Ownership and Survival: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Circulation. Cardiovascular quality and outcomes vol. 12,10 (2019): e005554. doi:10.1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.119.005554
- Dall, Philippa Margaret et al. “The influence of dog ownership on objective measures of free-living physical activity and sedentary behaviour in community-dwelling older adults: a longitudinal case-controlled study.” BMC public health vol. 17,1 496. 9 Jun. 2017, doi:10.1186/s12889-017-4422-5
- Motooka, Masahiko et al. “Effect of dog-walking on autonomic nervous activity in senior citizens.” The Medical journal of Australia vol. 184,2 (2006): 60-3. doi:10.5694/j.1326-5377.2006.tb00116.x
- Friedmann, Erika et al. “Pet ownership and maintenance of cognitive function in community-residing older adults: evidence from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA).” Scientific reports vol. 13,1 14738. 7 Sep. 2023, doi:10.1038/s41598-023-41813-y
- Friedmann, Erika, and Heesook Son. “The human-companion animal bond: how humans benefit.” The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice vol. 39,2 (2009): 293-326. doi:10.1016/j.cvsm.2008.10.015
- McNicholas, J, and G M Collis. “Dogs as catalysts for social interactions: robustness of the effect.” British journal of psychology (London, England : 1953) vol. 91 ( Pt 1) (2000): 61-70. doi:10.1348/000712600161673
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