Owning a pet might help you delay cognitive decline later in life, according to new research. They found that owning pets was especially beneficial for working memory, like memorizing words. According to the study’s first author, Jennifer W., “The results suggest that the use of social According to the National Institute of Health, approximately half of U.S. adult Americans over the age of 50 have pets.
Previous studies on the broader health impacts of pets have been somewhat inconclusive, but not enough attention was paid to the relationship between owning a pet and cognitive health.
“If long term pet ownership does provide a protection against cognitive decline, it would add to evidence that public policy should be supporting keeping pets and owners together.”
Tracking pet ownership’s effect on brain health
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.
Participants in the Health and Retirement Survey, a nationally representative survey of Americans aged 50 and older, were asked questions about their health status and retirement plans. Only people who had no signs of cognitive impairment at the beginning of the study were included. More than 53 percent (53%) of the people in the sample owned pets. Cats were the most common type of pet, followed by dogs. People also owned a wide range of other pets, including cats, dogs, birds, fish, hamster, rabbits, and lizards. Owning a pet at least five years gave the greatest benefit, according to research. Compared with people who didn’t own pets, pet owners experienced less cognitive decline over the course of six years. Improvements in cognitive health were reported to occur more frequently among Black adults, college- educated adults, and men.
Pet ownership may boost brain health, but more research is needed
Braley noted that this study cannot prove a cause-and effect relationship between owning pets and cognitive health, but these findings suggest that long-term pet ownership may be protective against cognitive decline in older adults.
“If indeed a causal link exists between pet ownership and cognitive function,” said Bracey, “physical inactivation, cardiovascular disease/highblood pressure, and chronic stress could be plausible pathways.
The physical activity associated with owning a dog may also improve cognitive function and physical health by improving cardiovascular health as well as through othe mechanisms.
Previous studies have shown that interacting with pets can help reduce stress, as measured by lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and blood pressure. Both of these effects may have a long-term effect on cognitive health.
Should you consider getting a pet?
Before you get a dog, cat, or any other animal, it’s important to understand that there isn’t enough research to say whether pets specifically help people’s brains.
“Although there is no evidence to suggest that pets improve cognitive function, we know that people who own pets tend to be healthier overall than people who don’t,” she added.
Applebaum further explained that this could occur through public policy and community partnerships, which would be an important part of the solution.
“A separation from a pet can devastate a bonded owner, and people who are marginalized are most at risk of these unwanted outcomes.”
Some steps that could be taken toward achieving this goal include regulating or abolishing pet fee requirements on rental housing, especially for low income communities or communities of color; providing foster or boarding assistance for people who have a medical emergency or other emergency; or providing free or low cost veterinary services for pet owners with lower income.