Q: I've always owned cats, but I had a mild heart attack recently and my doctor wants me to walk more. Do you think a puppy can help me get healthier? - Jessica L., Baton Rouge, La.
A: Absolutely. Dogs improve and protect your health in so many ways, and exercise from walking your dog is right at the top of the list. One National Institute of Health-funded study of people with heart attacks found that a year later those who owned dogs were more likely to be alive than those who didn't -- even if they had the most severe cardio problems. Having a loving pet also reduces stress. Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School -- pressure cookers of stress, for sure -- have specially trained "therapy dogs" that students can check out from the library for a dose of calming canine companionship. And therapy dogs also have been making the rounds at hospitals for a long time (Therapy Dogs International started in 1976). For kids going through chemo, a visit from a dog can provide a rush of energizing adrenaline and needed distraction. For heart patients, petting a pooch can bring down blood pressure.
Other surprising benefits of having a dog: Some have almost 50 times as many scent receptors as humans, so they can sniff out everything from bombs to diseases. In fact, they can be trained to detect changes in behavior that indicate high blood pressure or a heart attack, and head out for help. ("What's that, Lassie? Timmy's in the well?")
If you have kids or grandkids at home, they benefit, too. Babies seem to develop healthier immune systems if they grow up in a house with a dog, and older kids learn about caring and responsibility. The right dog can be a real benefit for you and your family. Pooches can make everyone's RealAge younger, and we're all for that!
Q: Is it true that tattoos can cause skin cancer? I'm dying to get one. - Ellen T., Garden City, N.Y.
A: The short answer is ... the jury is still out. But, and this is a big BUT for those of you with tattoos, many kinds of tattoo ink are toxic and can be germ-filled. There's been a wave of infections (19 in Rochester, N.Y., alone) from tainted ink. Unless the artist changes ink for every customer, when you get a tat, you are being intimate with everyone who got a tat from that inkwell.
As for the toxins, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has started to look into the risks, and since more than 45 million Americans (36 percent of 30-year-olds) have tats, the info shouldn't be too hard to get -- eventually. Remember, it took a couple of decades to positively determine that smoking causes lung cancer. That didn't mean it was smart to smoke before the official findings came out.
In the meantime, here's what we know and we want you to think about: Those colorful inks include phthalates (hormone disrupters that you worry about in plastics), as well as carcinogenic metals and hydrocarbons. Black ink (based on soot) may contain hazardous polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which can cause cancer. They're also made with dibutyl phthalate and benzo(a)prene, which is labeled by the Environmental Protection Agency as "among the most potent and well-documented skin carcinogens." Blue ink contains cobalt and aluminum. Red ink often contains cadmium and mercury sulfide. And the FDA notes that many of the inks are industrial grade suitable for printer's ink and automobile paint! Plus, inks have been found to migrate to your lymph nodes.
Your skin is there to protect you from heat, cold, dirt, germs and dangerous chemicals. So ask yourself, does walking around with known toxins etched into your skin sound smart?
But heck, if you believe scarring the largest organ of your body -- your skin -- is cool, we suggest you take a deep breath and wait for the urge to pass.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Dr. Mike Roizen is chief medical officer at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. For more information, go to realage.com.