Owning a pet can slow mental decline in older adults

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MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Could your pet help prevent the onset of dementia? A new study reveals having a furry friend in your life for more than five years can slow cognitive decline in older adults.

A team at the University of Michigan studied over 1,300 people with an average age of 65 and found that long-term pet ownership helped to delay aging in the brain. Moreover, these benefits were greater for Black pet parents, people with a college education, and men.

Study authors plan to present this preliminary study at the American Academy of Neurology’s 74th Annual Meeting in April.

“Prior studies have suggested that the human-animal bond may have health benefits like decreasing blood pressure and stress,” says study author Dr. Tiffany Braley of the University of Michigan Medical Center in a media release. “Our results suggest pet ownership may also be protective against cognitive decline.”

Pets can help relieve stress

All of the participants had normal cognitive skills at the beginning of the six-year study. Researchers used data from the Health and Retirement Study to look at 1,369 people. More than half (53%) owned pets and 32 percent were long-term pet owners (those having pets for five years or more).

Researchers note that 88 percent were white, seven percent Black, two percent Hispanic, and three percent were another ethnicity or race. The team used cognitive tests to develop a composite cognitive score for each person, ranging from 0 to 27. The composite score included common tests of subtraction, counting, and word recall.

Researchers then compared each participant’s composite cognitive scores with their years of pet ownership and cognitive function. Over the six years, cognitive scores decreased at a slower rate among pet owners, with the difference strongest among long-term pet owners.

Taking into account other factors which can affect cognitive function, the study showed that long-term pet owners, on average, had a cognitive composite score that was 1.2 points higher six years later compared to non-pet owners. Dr. Braley says more research is necessary to further explore the possible reasons for these associations.

“As stress can negatively affect cognitive function, the potential stress-buffering effects of pet ownership could provide a plausible reason for our findings,” Braley concludes.

“A companion animal can also increase physical activity, which could benefit cognitive health. That said, more research is needed to confirm our results and identify underlying mechanisms for this association.”

The study did not specify what kinds of pets the participants owned, or which animals may be the best ones to prevent the brain’s decline.

South West News Service writer Jim Leffman contributed to this report.