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Could having a dog help you live longer?

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By Brian Pascus, CBS News

Dog owners can take heart from new research about the possible health benefits of having a dog. According to two new studies by the American Heart Association, owning a dog is associated with an increased likelihood of living longer, especially among people who've previously had a heart attack or stroke. The findings are published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, a journal of the American Heart Association.

In a study of dog-owning and non-dog owning survivors of heart attacks or strokes, researchers determined that dog owners across the board experienced lower rates of death from heart attacks or strokes. The study was conducted in Sweden between 2001 and 2012 using the country's National Patient Register. 

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Dog owners in the study tended to have a "better outcome after a major cardiovascular event," the researchers found, although the study did not prove cause and effect. The reason could be due to an increase in physical activity and decrease in depression and loneliness among dog owners, which previous studies have confirmed.

People who lived alone after a heart attack or stroke saw the greatest upside. Compared to people who did not own a dog, researchers found that dog owners had a 33% lower risk of death after being hospitalized a heart attack if they lived alone, and a 15% lower risk if they lived with a partner or child. The results were similar for those who were treated for a stroke.

"The findings in these two well-done studies and analyses build upon prior studies and the conclusions of the 2013 AHA Scientific Statement 'Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk' that dog ownership is associated with reductions in factors that contribute to cardiac risk and to cardiovascular events," said Dr. Glenn N. Levine, M.D., in a statement for the American Heart Association. 

"Further, these two studies provide good, quality data indicating dog ownership is associated with reduced cardiac and all-cause mortality. While these non-randomized studies cannot 'prove' that adopting or owning a dog directly leads to reduced mortality, these robust findings are certainly at least suggestive of this," Levine said.

Having a dog to care for not only increases physical activity, it reduces social isolation, which could help heart attack and stroke survivors in their recoveries, experts said.

A second scientific review and meta-analysis about dog ownership and survival rates backs up these results. Researchers reviewed data on 3.8 million patients taken from 10 other studies, and found that dog owners experienced a 24% reduced risk of death from all causes; a 65% reduced risk of death following a heart attack; and a 31% reduced risk of death due to cardiovascular problems. 

"Having a dog was associated with increased physical exercise, lower blood pressure levels and better cholesterol profile in previous reports," said Dr. Caroline Kramer, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and an endocrinologist in New York. "As such, the findings that people who owned dogs lived longer and their risk for cardiovascular death was also lower are somewhat expected."

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