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6 reasons dogs truly are man’s best friend
Research suggests dog ownership may improve heart health, decrease depression, and even help you live longer.
- Dogs have been man's best friend for at least the past 15,000 years.
- Science now shows that this symbiotic relationship has been as beneficial for humans as their canine companions.
- Benefits of dog ownership include familial ties, a reduce risk of schizophrenia, and improved cardiovascular health.
Under cover of darkness, a pack of ancient wolves slowly stalk the camps of our nomadic ancestors. But they are not on the prowl. These timid, congenial Canidaes have discovered they can scavenge human kills and midden piles for more reward, and far less risk, than the hunt.
Over successive generations, their offspring grow more docile and more dependent on their human benefactors. In time humans adopt these four-legged moochers, taking them into their service with the tacit agreement of better food and companionship. And so, the human-dog relationship was born.
That's one possibility at least. All that's generally agreed upon is that dogs became man's best friend as early as 15,000 years ago — though some fossil evidence suggests domestication as far back as 30,000 years. As science writer James Gorman points out, this means we loved our tail-wagging besties before inventing agriculture, language, or permanent homes and even before we domesticated cows, goats, and, of course, cats.
"As we became friends with them, they became friends with us, and we have a dependency that's charming," Bill Nye, science guy and lover of all good dogs, told us in a 2015 interview. "It's enriched both the dog lives and the human lives."
For humans, the perks of the dog-human relationship run much deeper than games of fetch or a handy excuse to go for a nice, long walk.
Dogs see us as family
Dogs see their people as family, and the feeling seems to be mutual.
It's not our imaginations or a poetic attempt to explain behavior through personification. Dogs do view their people as family.
Cognition scientists at Emory University placed dogs in an MRI machine and scanned their brains while presenting them with different odors. Some aromas were of food. Others were from other dogs. And some were from the dogs' human companions. The dogs' brains' reward centers lit up most when presented with the human scents, showing they prioritized human relationships.
These results bolstered other research that shows dogs act similarly to human sounds and that they are the only non-primates to run toward humans for protection and comfort.
Dogs reduce the risk of schizophrenia
A little girl meets Lothair and Molly, two certified therapy dogs, at U.S. Air Force Base Hospital Langley.
Dogs may be able to curb the risk of some mental diseases. That's the conclusion of research published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE, which found a link between dog ownership and a reduced risk of schizophrenia.
The researchers looked at 1,371 men and women across the socioeconomic spectrum. Roughly 400 participants suffered from schizophrenia, another 400 from bipolar disorder, and about 600 were controls. After a survey in which the participants were asked about pets, the researchers compared ownership with rates of mental illness.
They discovered that dog ownership before the age of 13 correlated with a 25 percent reduced risk of schizophrenia. Participants who owned dogs in the first years of life showed the largest protective effect.
"There are several plausible explanations for this possible 'protective' effect from contact with dogs," lead author Robert Yolken said in a statement. "Perhaps something in the canine microbiome that gets passed to humans and bolsters the immune system against or subdues a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia."
Sorry, ailurophiles. Cats did not show a similar link between ownership and a reduced risk of mental diseases.
Dogs are your heart's best friend, too
Regular walks with your dog is great exercise and boosts cardiovascular health.
The health benefits aren't just in the mind. Preliminary research published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality & Outcomes suggests that pet ownership boosts heart health, especially if that pet is a dog.
Researchers evaluated roughly 1,800 participants using the American Heart Association's Life's Simple 7, seven life factors that people can improve to help achieve cardiovascular well-being. They then compared the health of pet owners with those who did not own pets and found a correlation between dog ownership and heart health. The researchers associated this salubrious effect with increased engagement and physical activity.
"In general, people who owned any pet were more likely to report more physical activity, better diet and blood sugar at an ideal level," Andrea Maugeri, a researcher with the International Clinical Research Center at St. Anne's University Hospital in Brno, said in a statement. "The greatest benefits from having a pet were for those who owned a dog, independent of their age, sex and education level."
Follow-up evaluations are scheduled until 2030.
Dogs make life better (and longer)
An older gentleman sits with his canine companion.
Better heart health means a better chance to live longer. That's according to a recent study and meta-analysis published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.
The research found that dog owners who survived a heart attack were at a 33 percent reduced risk of early death compared to non-dog survivors. The same held true for stroke survivors (27 percent). Better still, dog ownership correlated with a 24 percent reduced risk of all-cause mortality, likely explained by an increase in physical activity and a decrease in depression and loneliness.
A study published in Scientific Reports corroborates a canine's life-giving, heart-healthy impact. The researchers reviewed the national registries for more than 3.4 million Swedes with no cardiovascular disease before 2001. Looking at the association between dog ownership and cardiovascular health, they found that single dog owners had a lowered risk of death, either due to cardiovascular disease (11 percent) or other causes (33 percent).
In a statement, lead junior author Mwenya Mubanga noted, "A very interesting finding in our study was that dog ownership was especially prominent as a protective factor in persons living alone, which is a group reported previously to be at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and death than those living in a multi-person household. Perhaps a dog may stand in as an important family member in the single households."
Dogs teach us ways to learn
Put simply, dogs are better at ignoring bad advice than their human peers. Research out of Yale University's Canine Cognition Center tasked dogs with retrieving treats from a puzzle. The researchers presented the steps to solve the puzzle but included many extraneous steps in the demonstration. When it was the dogs' turn, they nimbly skipped the unnecessary steps, thereby showing their ability to filter information effectively.
How did human children perform? Not so great. The children settled on pure imitation, regardless of whether a step proved useful in solving the puzzle.
"This tells us something really important about how humans learn relative to other animals," Big Think author Arpan Bhattacharyya wrote on the study. "We're really trusting of the information that we get from other individuals – even more trusting than dogs are.
"And what this means is we have to be really careful about the kinds of information we present ourselves with. We're not going to have the right filter for bad information, so we should stick to looking at information that's going to be positive, information that's going to be good."
Dogs teach us about ourselves
Dogs really do resemble their owners.
Dogs resemble their owners in more ways than floppy jowls or a perky gait. Dogs mirror their owners' personalities, and owners can use this information to better understand themselves.
Research published in the Journal of Research in Personality surveyed more than 1,600 dog owners, representing about 50 different breeds. They found that dog owners shaped their dogs' personalities. Extroverted owners rated their dogs as more active and playful, while the owners of more fearful dogs tended to exhibit more negative emotions. Similarly, more agreeable owners were guardians of less aggressive pets.
"We expected the dogs' personalities to be fairly stable because they don't have wild lifestyle changes humans do, but they actually change a lot. We uncovered similarities to their owners, the optimal time for training and even a time in their lives that they can get more aggressive toward other animals," lead author William Chopik said in a release.
Another study in Scientific Reports showed similar findings regarding stress. The researchers took hair and fur samples from owners and their dogs to measure both for the stress hormone cortisol. They found a correlation in long-term stress between the two.
More than simply good dogs
These are six ways that science has discovered dogs aid their interspecies partner. As genetic research advances, dogs may prove they are man's best friends in unforeseen ways. Scientists studying the canine genome have found a number of canine disorders that closely resemble those found in humans, including some cancers. Further study may provide a wealth of information that could help us solve our own genetic mysteries.
- Dog Owners Experience Reduced Risk for Cardiovascular Problems ... ›
- Dogs in the Workplace Mean Better Mental Health - Big Think ›
- Is Dog Man's Best Friend Because of Oxytocin? ›
The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
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Vegans and vegetarians often have nutrient deficiencies and lower BMI, which can increase the risk of fractures.
- The study found that vegans were 43% more likely to suffer fractures than meat eaters.
- Similar results were observed for vegetarians and fish eaters, though to a lesser extent.
- It's possible to be healthy on a vegan diet, though it takes some strategic planning to compensate for the nutrients that a plant-based diet can't easily provide.
Comparison of fracture cases by diet group
Credit: Tong et al.<p>The results showed that vegans were especially vulnerable to hip fractures, suffering 2.3 times more cases than meat-eaters. Vegetarians and pescatarians were also more likely to suffer hip fractures, though to a lesser extent.</p><p>One explanation may be that non-meat eaters consume less calcium and protein. Calcium helps the body build strong bones, particularly before age 30, after which the body begins to lose bone mineral density (though consuming enough calcium through diet or supplement can <a href="https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-Consumer/" target="_blank">help offset losses</a>). Lower bone mineral density means higher risk of fracture.</p><p>Protein seems to help the body absorb calcium, <a href="https://www.bonejoint.net/blog/did-you-know-that-certain-foods-block-calcium-absorption/#:~:text=Historically%2C%20nutritionists%20have%20warned%20that,may%20increase%20intestinal%20calcium%20absorption." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">when consumed in normal levels</a>. The recent study, along with past research, shows that people who don't eat meat tend to have lower levels of both protein and calcium. When the researchers accounted for non-meat eaters who supplemented their diets with calcium and protein, fracture risk decreased, but still remained significant.</p>
Credit: Pixabay<p>Another explanation is body mass index (BMI). Non-meat eaters tend to have a lower BMI, which is associated with higher fracture risk, particularly hip fractures. In the new study, vegans with a low BMI were especially likely to suffer hip fractures. That might be because having more body mass provides a cushioning effect when people fall.</p><p>Still, the study has some limitations. For one, White European women were overrepresented in the sample. The researchers also didn't collect precise data on the type of calcium or protein supplementation, diet quality or causes of fractures.</p><p>Another complicating factor: Producers of vegan products, such as plant-based milk, are increasingly fortifying foods with nutrients like calcium and protein, so modern vegans are potentially at lower risk of deficiency.</p><p>The researchers wrote that their findings "suggest that bone health in vegans requires further research."</p>