Why a dog may be your heart’s best friend

By June Shannon Heart News   |   27th Aug 2019

Dog ownership boosts mental and physical health – new study

We all know that pet ownership comes with many benefits, but did you know that having a dog was also good for your heart?

New research from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), has found that dog owners are more likely to report high levels of physical activity compared to non-pet owners and those who own other pets.

Regular exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.

Overall, less than a third of Irish adults currently meet the minimal physical activity recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate activity five times a week however, the TILDA study found that dog owners were more likely to achieve this level compared to non-pet owners and those who own other pets.

Dog owners are more likely to report high levels of physical activity compared to non-pet owners and those who own other pets.

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The TILDA study has been following a randomly selected group of nearly 10,000 Irish people over the age of 50 for the last eight years to determine how their lifestyles affect their health.

The latest research from the TILDA study which examined the associations of pet ownership with health and wellbeing of people aged 50 and older in Ireland, found that people who walked their dog at least three times a week also reported higher levels of active and social leisure activities and close social relationships than those who walk their dogs less frequently.

Dog ownership was highest in adults aged 50-64 years (51% compared to 25% in adults aged 75 and over) and was higher in rural dwellers compared to those in Dublin (49% versus 26%).

Three out of four adults (78%) reported that they walked their dog at least three times per week while two-fifths (38%) walked their dog every day. The study found that those who walked their dogs at least three times per week had lower body mass index compared to those who walked their dogs less frequently.

According to the study, dog-owners were also found to have higher grip strength (a marker of muscle strength and frailty), compared to non-pet owners and those who own other pets.

" Dog walking may represent a useful strategy to improve physical, social and mental health outcomes in older dog owners .”

Dr Orna Donoghue, Lead author , TCD

Almost half (45%) of adults aged 50 years and over in Ireland own a pet with dogs being most common (38%) followed by cats (21%).

The authors also highlighted that the reason for having a pet was an important factor in explaining whether a dog owner benefited from better mental health and wellbeing. They found that pet owners who reported that their reason for having a pet was because they loved animals had a higher sense of purpose in life, whereas those who had a pet to keep busy or to have something to take care of had lower wellbeing scores.

Lead author of the study Dr Orna Donoghue said, “The importance of physical activity and continued social engagement and social participation as we age is well established – both are associated with improved health and wellbeing and lower mortality. Dog owners report higher levels of physical activity compared to non-dog owners. However, regular dog walking appears to be an important mechanism through which dog owners attain higher levels of active social participation and more close social relationships. Given the high prevalence of dog ownership, the strong bond and attachment between dogs and their owners and the physical activity requirements to promote dog health, dog walking may represent a useful strategy to improve physical, social and mental health outcomes in older dog owners.”

Principal Investigator of TILDA, Professor Rose Anne Kenny said, “Pets are hugely important for many people, however as people get older, their circumstances may change, and it is not always possible to keep a pet. To maintain wellbeing in older adults and to support independent ageing at home, it will be important to consider the potential benefits of exposure to and interaction with pets and consequently, innovative ways which facilitate older adults to keep pets for as long as they wish to do so. This is especially pertinent given the current changing population demographics in Ireland; with increased life expectancy, we should address initiatives that increase opportunities for active and healthy ageing. In addition to our work in TILDA, there is emerging data on the benefits of dogs in hospitals and patient settings – particularly rehabilitation units and dementia units.”

At the Irish Foundation we highlighted the benefits of Irish therapy dog Ruby, a beautiful nine-year-old golden retriever who visits stroke patients every Tuesday in St. James’s Hospital in Dublin. You can read more about Ruby here.

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dog ownership dogs physical activity TCD TILDA Study

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