Science has long declared that pets help people de-stress and stick to a healthy routine. They can also decrease depression and physical pain and, in many cases, provide a sense of purpose.
A new study suggests that pet ownership is even better for older people than previously known. This preliminary study, released by researchers at the University of Michigan, has linked long-term pet ownership to delayed aging of the brain in adults over 65. The new data will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 74th Annual Meeting in Seattle in early April.
“Prior studies have suggested that the human-animal bond may have health benefits like decreasing blood pressure and stress,” said Tiffany Braley, M.D., of the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, who oversaw the study, in a press release. “Our results suggest pet ownership may also be protective against cognitive decline.”
Using data from the Health and Retirement Study, an examination of 1,369 Medicare beneficiaries, Braley’s work looked at cognitive data from older adults with an average age of 65 who had normal cognitive skills at the start of the study. A total of 53 percent owned pets, and 32 percent were long-term pet owners who had owned their animals for five years or more.
For that Medicare study, researchers measured cognitive function through various tests, including number counting, subtraction problems and word recall. Participants received a cognitive score ranging from 0 to 27 based on how well they performed.
Over six years, cognitive scores decreased at a slower rate in pet owners, especially for the one-third who fell into the long-term pet owner category. On average, they had a cognitive composite score that was 1.2 points higher compared to non-pet owners. Those cognitive drops were even lower in Black participants, men and older adults with a college education.
“I definitely think having a pet makes a difference,” says caregiver Lorie Martan, 60. “Anything that helps stimulate the brain is good — plus all the love you’re giving to that animal.”
Pets, people and the brain
For the past two years, Martan has been caring for a bedridden 80-year-old woman plus her dog and cat in the woman’s San Clemente, California, home. The cat, Maggie, spent all day and night in its owner’s room, often sleeping on her chest.
Martan has been concerned about her employer’s well-being since the 21-year-old feline’s death in January. “The cat kept her busy and engaged,” says Martan. “There’s not that engagement anymore.”
More research is needed to understand why, exactly, owning a pet may help people stay sharper longer, but researchers do point to clues from past studies.
“As stress can negatively affect cognitive function, the potential stress-buffering effects of pet ownership could provide a plausible reason for our findings,” Braley says. “A companion animal can also increase physical activity, which could benefit cognitive health.”
A recent Japanese study authored by neuroscientist Yu Taniguchi that sought to discover the associations between pet ownership and the onset of disability in adults over the age of 65 found that dog and cat owners get more regular exercise and have closer social relationships than those who do not own pets.
Dog ownership, especially, appeared to protect against disability in older Japanese adults. The report concludes that daily dog care may play a role in successful aging. “People who walked their dogs were only half as likely to be gaining a disability,” says Lynette A. Hart, vice chair and professor of anthrozoology and animal behavior at the University of California, Davis.
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Other benefits to pet ownership
But it’s not just the physical movement that delays frailty. A 2015 study of nearly 2,700 people in Perth, Australia; San Diego, California; Portland, Oregon; and Nashville, Tennessee, found that pet owners (especially owners of dogs) were 60 percent more likely than non–pet owners to get to know people in their neighborhoods they hadn’t known before. “Of course, if you have lower physical health, you’re more vulnerable to dementia and lower cognition — but I want to emphasize the social contact you get from having a dog,” adds Hart.
And for cat owners, like Martan’s employer, who are more often than not spending time with their pet at home, the benefits of that human-animal connection are still there.
Research has shown that cats can be more comforting for individuals with disabilities, who cannot respond to a dog the way it requires, and women in the sandwich generation who are caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s at the same time as raising a child. “We found a cat was a companion pet that wasn’t adding to their stress,” says Hart. “If you’re bedridden, a cat can sit on the bed with you, and that’s obviously better than being alone day after day.”
Though Martan’s employer does not want another cat right now, Martan believes it would be beneficial to find her a new senior feline companion. “It is more work for me, but it’s still better for her to have a cat,” she says.
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Sara Ventiera is a contributing writer who covers pets, health and home design. Her work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, Food & Wine, Eating and BBC Travel, as well as on NPR.