- A new study has found that owning a pet may help delay cognitive decline as we grow older.
- The greatest effects of pet ownership were seen after 5 years.
- Study authors say it is too early to recommend pet ownership to protect cognitive health.
- However, they do advocate for programs that help older adults keep their current pets.
- Other ways to keep your brain healthy include physical exercise, socialization, and playing games.
Owning a pet may help you delay cognitive decline as you age, researchers say.
They found that pet ownership was especially beneficial for working verbal memory, like memorizing word lists.
According to the study’s first author, Jennifer W. Applebaum, sociology doctoral candidate and NIH predoctoral fellow at the University of Florida, this is important because approximately 50 percent of U.S. adults over the age of 50 own a pet.
Previous research on the broader health impact of pets has been somewhat inconclusive, she said, but not enough attention has been paid to the relationship between pet ownership and cognitive health.
“If long-term pet ownership does provide a protective effect for cognitive health, it would add to the evidence that public policy should support keeping pets and owners together,” said Applebaum.
Applebaum and her colleague, Dr. Tiffany Braley, associate professor of neurology and clinical neuroimmunologist at the University of Michigan, who was the senior author on the paper, analyzed cognitive data on more than 1,300 adults for their study, which is to be presented in April at the American Academy of Neurology’s 74th Annual Meeting.
Study participants were involved in the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative study that is tracking the lives of U.S. adults ages 50 and older.
People who were already experiencing cognitive decline before the study were not included.
More than 53 percent of the people in the final sample were found to own pets.
Dogs were the most commonly owned pet, followed by cats. People also owned a variety of other pets, including birds, fish, hamsters, rabbits, and reptiles.
Owning a pet for at least 5 years gave the strongest benefit, researchers wrote. When compared with people who did not own pets, it delayed cognitive decline by 1.2 points over the 6 years of the study.
In addition, improvements to cognitive health were reported to be “more prominent” for Black adults, college-educated adults, and men.
Braley was careful to note that this study can’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship between ownership and cognition, but these findings provide early evidence that suggests long-term pet ownership could be protective against cognitive decline.
“If indeed there is a causal link between pet ownership and cognitive health,” said Braley, “physical inactivity, cardiovascular disease/high blood pressure, and chronic stress (which are all linked to cognitive decline) could be plausible pathways.”
The physical activity associated with owning a dog could also benefit cognition and physical health by improving cardiovascular health as well as through other mechanisms, she said.
Braley noted previous research has also found links between interacting with a pet and stress reduction, as measured by reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol and blood pressure. Both of these effects could have a long-term impact on cognitive health.
The participants who owned pets generally were of higher socioeconomic status as well, according to the study write-up. This might also account for the fact that their cognitive health fared better since they had more income and were more likely to see a doctor.
However, more research is needed to better understand these associations, Braley said.
Before you consider getting a pet, however, Braley and Applebaum both want you to know it’s premature to recommend pet ownership specifically for brain health.
“Despite the compelling associations identified in this study, additional work is necessary to understand the relationship between pet ownership and cognition,” said Braley.
“However, if a causal relationship exists between pet ownership and cognitive health, such data would provide further support for the development of programs to support older adults who are interested in maintaining or initiating pet ownership,” she added.
Applebaum further explained this could occur via public policy and community partnerships.
“An unwanted separation from a pet can be devastating for a bonded owner, and marginalized populations are most at-risk of these unwanted outcomes,” she said.
Steps that could be taken toward this goal, according to Applebaum, could include such things as regulating or abolishing pet fees on rental housing, especially in low income communities or Communities of Color; providing foster or boarding support for people who have a health crisis or other emergency; or free or low cost veterinary care for pet owners with lower incomes.
If you are interested in protecting your brain health but pet ownership just isn’t right for you, there are other activities you can try.
Dr. Douglas Scharre, a neurologist and director of the Center for Cognitive and Memory Disorders at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said that the more you exercise your brain, the better.
This can help build new connections between the nerve cells of your brain, he explained.
“Physical exercise and socialization are two excellent ways to stimulate your brain,” said Scharre.
“So are other puzzles, games, problem-solving activities, dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, and sports,” he added.
Dr. Nikhil Palekar, medical director of the Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease and director of the division of geriatric psychiatry, said recent research has shown that word games like Wordle and number puzzles like sudoku are a great way to keep your brain active.
Adults 50 and older who play these types of games on a regular basis have better memory, attention, and reasoning skills as well as improvement in speed and accuracy, said Palekar.