By Kim Painter, Special for USA TODAY
Pets don't just make lives fuller. They may help make them longer, says an official statement from the American Heart Association.
Owning a pet - especially a dog - seems to have heart health benefits, the group says in the statement published Thursday in the medical journal Circulation.
"The data is most robust for people who own a dog," says Glenn Levine, a cardiologist with Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. But he says there's reason to believe cats and other pets are helpful, too.
Levine led a scientific committee that reviewed the research on pets and heart health. The group says the studies are not definitive but do suggest:
• Dogs may keep owners active (with all those walks). In one study, dog owners were 54% more likely than other adults to get recommended levels of exercise.
• Interacting with a pet can lower stress responses in the body.
• Pet ownership is associated with lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and less obesity.
In one of the best-designed studies, Levine says, researchers compared people with borderline high blood pressure who adopted dogs with others who also wanted dogs but were randomly assigned to delay the adoptions for purposes of the study. Those who brought home their dogs saw declines in blood pressure and were less likely to see their blood pressure and heart rates rise in response to stress. A study with cats and dogs produced similar results in people with high blood pressure and high-stress occupations, he says.
Most other studies involved comparing pet owners with those who did not have pets, meaning researchers could not rule out the possibility that people who had pets were just healthier to start with.
In any case, the experts don't recommend that people with heart health problems adopt, rescue or buy pets just for the potential heart health boost.
The main reason to get a pet should be "to give the pet a loving home" and enjoy the relationship, Levine says.
"We also not do not want someone to go out and buy a dog and then be content to sit on the couch and smoke."