Can having a dog help you live longer?


Judy Woodruff: But first, a new scientific study underlines the truth of the old phrase dogs are a man's best friend.

According to researchers in Sweden, dog owners live longer. Their figures show that, of people who live alone, those who have a dog have a 36 percent chance of living longer than those who don't have a pet.

Malcolm Brabant begins his report from Uppsala, north of Stockholm.

Malcolm Brabant: Tove Fall practices what she preaches. She's got a dog called Vega.

An epidemiologist, she's an expert in disease and public health who's just conducted what's claimed to be the biggest ever study of its kind, matching the health records of a third of the Swedish population with dog ownership data.

Tove Fall: What we see here in this really large study, where we look at more than 3.4 million people for over 12 years, we see clear evidence that dog owners live longer.

Malcolm Brabant: Vega's owner has confidence in her findings because of the magnitude of the sample size, using the identification system that tracks every Swede's lifelong interaction with state institutions.

Tove Fall: It's really accurate in terms of that we know the exact date of hospitalizations, for cardiovascular disease. We know the date of birth of the dog and so on.

Malcolm Brabant: The Centers for Disease Control says heart disease is America's leading cause of death. Fall's prescription? There ain't nothing like a hound dog.

Tove Fall: Dog owners do much more physical exercise. When it's dark and gray here in Sweden or rainy, the only people you see outdoors are people with dogs. So, and you know that physical activity is good for a lot of different health outcomes.

Malcolm Brabant: So, can dogs delay your exit? There are doubting voices from across the North Sea.

Caesar, sit, sit. OK, sit. There's a good boy, OK? Good boy. Come on, sit. I got to do a piece to camera. Just a minute. OK? OK. There you go. You can have it. OK.

According to a new study, called All Creatures Great and Small, which has just been published in the British Medical Journal, having a pet is not going to keep you young. The study conducted by scientists at the University College London, looked at 9,000 people with an average age of 67, and they looked at key aging markers such as walking speed, lung function, grip strength, memory and depression.

And they determined that having a pet did not necessarily make any difference to the aging process whatsoever.

There's a good boy.

The authors did concede, however, that walking a dog could help weight and cardiovascular problems. The British scientists also said dog owners were more likely to be in poorer health and lonely. But Tove Fall's findings for single people with dogs, using a substantially bigger database, were completely different.

She says their mortality rates were improved by 36 percent. This rang true with homeless people being helped on a December day by volunteers in Copenhagen. With winter beginning to bite, an animal charity was doing brisk business.

Rickie Lee: We are an animal shelter. We want to care for the dogs, but we also know that these people, a lot of them, it's their best friend, it's their only companion. So helping the dogs helps the people. And then one thing we always find is that these dogs are really well-cared-for. They are the priority of these people.

Malcolm Brabant: And Lee believes the dogs are life savers.

Rickie Lee: The dogs are their soul mate. They are the reason they get up in the morning, their way of keeping warm here in the wintertime, especially in the northern climates like Denmark. And I think they're the reason for them to be alive.

Malcolm Brabant: Kim Hasselstrom isn't asking for a free hot dog for himself. He wants it for Mollie, his canine companion, whom he credits for saving him from suicide during darker periods living rough.

Kim Hasselstrom: I have only Mollie. I'm living in the street. I lose my family. So Mollie is 95 percent of my life. Because every day, I'm maybe not happy, look at that dog one time, then you're happy. The dog is all time, they're happy, because if you don't like a little dog when it comes to you, then you don't like anything.

Malcolm Brabant: The volunteers fit a jacket to keep Bandit warm during the harsh Scandinavian winter.

Klaus Hansen: I have been living honestly for eight years now, and I'm almost never sick, not even a fever or a cold. Nothing.

Malcolm Brabant: Klaus Hansen is in no doubt what would happen to him if he didn't have Bandit to keep him company.

Klaus Hansen: Oh, probably lying in a corner drunk or hanging in a tree somewhere. Actually, the dog helps me in many ways, also my health. And, also, I don't go so much crazy in the head. When you are sitting alone all day and thinking, you go in the same rounds all day. So it's nice to have a dog to talk with.

Malcolm Brabant: Two hundred miles away, at one of Denmark's leading neuro centers, the benefits of dogs in human health care are being assessed and promoted.

Blida, an Icelandic sheepdog, is about to try to help a brain-damaged patient.

Project manager Galina Plesner-

Galina Plesner: The dogs, they can actually provide extra motivation to do the therapy, to do the movements that patients are required to make.

Malcolm Brabant: Blida lives up to the translation of her Icelandic name. It means gentle. Her patient today is 72-year-old Eric, who's been crippled by a brain hemorrhage. A tracheotomy means he can't speak. He's bed-ridden, and he's is receiving therapy to try to regain basic motor skills.

The staff hope the dog can enhance his progress. The gentle one is keen to get to work, and it looks like the feeling is mutual.

Galina Plesner: When you go into rehabilitation like this, you have suffered a trauma, and you need to get back on track, back into life. And therapy actually has to do with training everyday movements.

Malcolm Brabant: Eric is working to reward the sheepdog by fitting small treats into the game.

Galina Plesner: For some people, the dogs will motivate them to maybe work a little bit longer, and it's a bit more fun than being in a therapeutic kitchen or therapeutic bathroom in order to train the movements that you're required to be able to do.

Malcolm Brabant: Tina Hogan is Eric's therapist.

Tina Hogan: Certainly a lot of progress since he was here last time. Eric suffers from muscle atrophy in both his hands. So he has trouble reaching out and grabbing stuff, and that's why we chose the games we chose.

Malcolm Brabant: The final test of the session is the toughest, putting dog treats in a ball.

Galina Plesner: Dogs are nonjudgmental. So when you have a patient who's suffered a trauma, for example, or an old person who has dementia, they will know that there are requirements in the environment that they can't live up to.

And dogs, they don't have those requirements, and it's intuitively recognized that you don't have to live up to anything with a dog.

Malcolm Brabant: The Icelandic sheepdog is clearly happy with her rewards.

Galina Plesner: I think it's important not to call it magic, even though perhaps something unique is going on that we can't measure.

But I think it doesn't have to be magic. It can be very, very powerful and very both emotional and strong, the effects that you see.

Malcolm Brabant: The foundation wants to expand the number of rehabilitation programs involving dogs.

Back in Sweden, Vega's owner is planning new research to determine whether dogs can benefit humans in other ways.

This is a time of year when thousands of puppies, given as presents, are discarded by their new owners. This Swedish study would suggest they are rejecting the gift of health.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Malcolm Brabant in Scandinavia.

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