2019-03-15 / On Second Thought

Dog ownership has many benefits with a few precautions

Compiled by Warren Hughes

Do you have any advice for a recent retiree thinking of getting a dog?

Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows how much the companionship means. As 19th century humorist Josh Billings memorably wrote, “A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”

Evidence clearly shows dogs not only warm our hearts, they also contribute to our physical well-being. In 2017, Scientific Reports cited a Swedish University study which found dog owners had a lower risk of death due to cardiovascular disease than people who did not report owning a dog, as well as a lower risk of death from other causes.

“There are numerous studies showing that dog owners get more physical activity, which could help to prolong a healthy life,” reported study author Dr. Tove Fall, an epidemiology professor and also a veterinarian.

The study found there were especially significant benefits to owning a dog for people who live alone. They had a 33 percent reduced risk of death and an 11 percent reduced risk of cardiovascular disease than people who lived alone without a dog.

So the evidence is clearly there. However, there are some precautions to keep in mind as older dog owners may also be more prone to falls.

New York Times writer Jane Brody recently wrote about those risks, noting Pulitzer Prize winner writer Russell Baker died in January from complications after a fall. Just recently in Columbia, a dog walker died after slipping into a creek.

Such incidents shouldn’t discourage people from the pleasure of exercising their dogs, but care needs to be taken on these outings.

Falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries among older adults. Every 19 minutes in this country, an older person dies from a fall. Most age-related falls are preventable once you know why they happen and take steps to minimize the risks, Brody pointed out.

An American Medical Association report this month also noted broken bones from falls while dog walking are on the rise among older adults.

University of Pennsylvania researchers examined government data on emergency room visits for dog walking injuries in adults aged 65 and older.

The numbers nationwide jumped from almost 1,700 in 2004 to about 4,400 in 2017.

While dog walking causes fewer than one percent of fractures among older adults, the numbers are higher than expected and the risk is often underappreciated, said study coauthor Dr. Jaimo Ahn, an orthopedic surgeon.

Injuries typically happen when a dog pulls on a leash and walkers lose their balance. While dogs are wonderful companions and keep us active, older people should consider strength training for themselves and obedience training for their dogs, Dr. Ahn said.

Brody advises getting your eyes checked at least once a year. Don’t delay recommended cataract surgery. Regularly update your prescription for corrective lenses.

Older people often do better with single-focus lenses, which may mean having different glasses depending on your activity, whether it is for reading, driving or walking, she said.

Be especially mindful of footwear, she pointed out. Shoes should fit well and be comfortable and supportive. Low heels and soles with good grips are essential. Wear appropriate footwear for the weather and surface conditions. And always look where you’re going, for example, about 10 feet ahead to anticipate trip hazards. For stability, consider using a walking stick.

While suggested for older dog owners, this advice applies to dog walkers of all ages.

The Columbia Star wants to add to the community’s storehouse of knowledge, whether it is a neighborhood matter, a larger issue or a simple curiosity. We’ll do the footwork for you. Submit your questions to: wmchughes27@gmail.com.

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