Karen Allen has found that for women living alone, a four-legged friend may be nearly as effective in keeping blood pressure down as a human companion.
And for older adults undergoing out-patient eye surgery, Allen and Lawrence Golden have show that those who listened to their choice of music during surgery had significantly lower heart rate, blood pressure and cardiac work load than patients who did not listen to music.
Allen, a research scientist in the UB Department of Medicine and Millard Fillmore Health System, reported the results of both studies last week at the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society in Sante Fe, N.M.
Earlier studies involving pets conducted by Allen have shown that in a stressful situation, a pet dog is more comforting than a spouse, and that trained companion dogs can replace paid health-aides in assisting persons with disabilities in their daily routine, saving $13,000 per year per person. Her previous study of music played during surgery concluded that playing music of their choice during surgery may help some surgeons relieve stress and improve their performance.
The new study to measure the effects of pets on women living alone was conducted over six months and involved 100 women who lived alone. Half were in their mid-20s, the other half were in their early 70s. Twenty-five women in each group had a dog or cat to which they were very attached. The other 25 in each group had never owned a pet. Of the young pet-owners, 17 had dogs and 8 had cats. The breakdown for the older pet-owners was 9 dogs and 16 cats.
Results showed that blood pressure of pet-owners was lower than that of non-pet-owners in both age groups. Among elderly women, those with pets had significantly lower blood pressure readings than those without pets. Elderly women with pets but little human companionship had blood pressure readings nearly as low as young women with many supportive friends or family. Owning a pet had only a slight moderating effect on the blood pressure of young women with little social support.
"These findings indicate that there is more than one type of positive social support," Allen said, "and they suggest that for people with few human contacts or friends, pets can play an important role in moderating age-related increases in blood pressure."
In the study looking at the effects of music on those undergoing out-patient eye surgery, Allen and Golden, UB clinical professor of medicine, focused on 40 cataract or glaucoma patients ranging in age from 51-88. The patients were divided into two groups, each composed of 15 women and five men. Two participating surgeons treated half of each group.
Patients in the experimental group listened to music of their choice through headphones before, during and after surgery. Those in the control group did not listen to music at any time.
Heart rate and blood pressure of all patients shot up the morning of surgery. These measures of cardiovascular stress dropped significantly in the music group within 10 minutes of tuning in, and remained low, results showed. Only in the music group did cardiovascular measures nearly reach baseline, Allen said.
Music patients also rated the stress of surgery lower and their ability to cope higher than the control group.
"If this were a drug intervention, people would be clamoring for it," said Allen. "Patients like it, it's cheap and effective, and has no negative side effects. Hospitals could offer it and be heroes to their patients."
Other investigators on the study were M.I. Ching, research fellow at Millard Fillmore; and Alan Forrest; Charles Niles, Philip Niswander, Jared Barlow, and Joseph L. Izzo Jr., all affiliated with UB. Music for the study was provided by Digital Music Express.
To read more about the study of the beneficial effect of pets for women who live alone, go to http://www.buffalo.edu/news/Latest/AllenPetsWomen_Lois.html. To read more about the study of patients undergoing out-patient eye surgery, go to http://www.buffalo.edu/news/Latest/AllenStressSurgery_Lois.html.
ILLUSTRATION BY TODD RELYEA