February is American Heart Month. There have been many public service announcements, ads, and campaigns to bring awareness about the things you can do to improve your heart health. Eating right and getting exercise top the lists of heart healthy choices however, a new addition to the lists may be to get a pet.
A recent Japanese study found that pet owners with chronic diseases appeared to have healthier hearts than those without pets. These findings were published in the American Journal of Cardiology and specifically noted that pet owners in this study had a higher heart rate variability verses non-pet owners.
Heart rate variability refers to the patient’s heart’s response to change, such as beating faster in stressful situations. Reduced heart rate variability has been linked to a higher heart disease mortality risk. The study specifically monitored 191 people between the ages of 60-80 years old. All were afflicted with conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. They were monitored for a 24 hour period and wore heart monitors for the entire study. About four out of every ten people owned a pet.
The study concluded that for pet owners, nearly 5 percent of their heartbeats differed by 50 milliseconds in length. Only 2.5 percent of the non-pet owners had differing heart rates, meaning that non-pet owner’s heart rates changed less or responded to change less.
There’s no conclusion as to what caused the differences between the two groups. It’s possible that it’s related to the pets or it may be related to the differences between people who choose to own pets verses those who do not.
There has been a long time belief that pet ownership can improve health and many professionals feel this study helps prove that belief. “My guess is that pets are a form of social support, hence stress reduction, and they can satisfy some but not all social companionship needs,” said Judith Siegel, a professor at the UCLA School of Public Health.
Erika Friedmann is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. She stated that the study offers more solidifying facts in what is already known about the positive findings regarding the connection between pet ownership and heart health. “Here we’re moving into people’s daily lives, and that’s what’s so exciting,” said Friedmann. “It really goes beyond what happens in a ten minute period in the lab.”