A pet could help preserve memory and slow the rate of cognitive decline in older adults who live alone, according to a new study published December 26 in JAMA Network Open.
Of interest to researchers was the fact that the association between pet companionship and slower rates of cognitive change was seen only in older adults who lived by themselves, but not in their same-age counterparts with pets who cohabitated with other people.
These new findings add to a growing body of research that suggests that cognitive decline, particularly decline in verbal memory, could be lessened by pet ownership, says Tiffany Braley, MD, an associate professor of neurology and a researcher at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor who was not involved in this study.
The fact that the cognitive benefits of keeping a pet were seen only in people living alone raises important questions regarding the potential pathways by which pet ownership could benefit cognitive health in older adults, adds Dr. Braley.
Nearly 1 in 10 Seniors Has Dementia
Research shows that among U.S. adults age 65 and older, 1 in 10 has dementia, and 22 percent have mild cognitive impairment. Experts estimate that the number of adults living with some form of dementia in the United States will double by 2050, rising from 5.2 million people today to 10.5 million.
Pet Owners Who Live Alone Had Slower Rates of Some Types of Cognitive Decline
For the new study, experts used data from nearly 8,000 people enrolled in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, an ongoing nationally representative sample of community-dwelling adults age 50 and older in the United Kingdom.
Each year, the participants were asked to perform several tests designed to measure verbal memory and verbal fluency. Examples included reciting 10 unrelated words immediately after they were given and then again after a delay, and naming as many animals as they could in one minute.
After comparing pet owners and non-pet owners over a nine-year period, the analysis showed that pet owners who lived alone had slower rates of decline in verbal memory and fluency than those without pets. Pet ownership didn’t affect cognitive decline in people who lived with other humans.
“Our findings might help to formulate public health interventions and promote healthy aging,” says a coauthor of the study, Yanzhi Li, PhD, a researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China.
Previous Research Linked Length of Pet Ownership With Cognitive Benefits
This study supports existing research on the potential benefits of having a pet for cognitive trajectories, says Braley.
Braley was the coauthor of a study published in the March 2023 Journal of Aging and Health that linked five or more years of pet ownership to delayed aging in the brain.
“In our study, we found that length of pet ownership influenced associations seen between pet ownership and cognitive function measures over time in older adults, with more years of pet ownership being more protective, particularly for verbal memory. Our data suggested that the benefits of pet ownership could be cumulative. However, research to date has not sufficiently characterized pet ownership status, which may have different effects on cognition through duration and strength of the human-animal bond,” she says.
More Than 1 in 4 Older Adults Live Alone in the U.S.
This new study also provides insight into the impact of pet ownership on older adults who live alone — a growing segment of the population that’s particularly vulnerable to cognitive decline, says Braley.
An estimated 27 percent of U.S. adults age 60 and older were living alone in 2020, and that number is projected to go even higher as the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age, according to the National Council on Aging.
RELATED: Who’s at Risk for Loneliness — and Why?
It’s important to note the study is observational: Researchers observed trends in people who already did or did not have pets, rather than randomly selecting people for pet ownership and then comparing them to a control group without pets over time. “These findings don’t establish that owning a pet caused the reduction in cognitive decline,” says Braley.
But the findings do make sense, given that loneliness and social isolation are well-established risk factors for cognitive decline, she says. “Pet ownership could potentially buffer the detrimental effects of loneliness, either directly from companionship offered by the pets themselves, or potentially through more social engagement, [such as the] community benefits of dog parks, for example,” says Braley.
People Who Own a Pet Are More Physically Active
There are many reasons why owning a pet could help protect our brains from decline, says Braley. For starters, pets often help people manage stress, which is also linked to cognitive decline, she says.
“Physical activity could be enhanced by pet interactions, particularly dog walking,” says Braley. A 2019 UK study found that most dog owners spent close to 300 minutes each week walking their dogs, about 200 more minutes of walking than people without dogs did.
Why does walking matter? Evidence suggests that walking (about 10,000 steps a day) can cut the risk of dementia by as much as 50 percent.
Finally, pets may provide a sense of purpose, which is associated with healthy aging and reduced dementia risk, says Braley.
More Research Is Needed to Understand How Pets May Protect the Brain
The authors of the study acknowledged that the findings are limited because only two domains of cognition were tested, and that further work needs to be done to provide a fuller picture of how to slow cognitive decline with age.
More prospective research that assesses the intensity and duration of pet ownership and uses more in-depth cognitive measures in a more diverse group of people could further the understanding of how pet ownership may affect cognitive decline, says Braley.
Ready to Adopt a Pet? Here’s What to Consider
The American Veterinary Medical Association offers a few tips on how to select the best pet for your situation.
- Add up the costs of food, housing, grooming and vet care to make sure it won’t break your budget.
- Make sure that your job and travel schedule will still allow you to give your pet the attention it needs.
- Consider what you want in a pet (exercise companion, lap dog, or both?) and what you’re willing and able to provide.