Pets protect against cognitive decline

2 minute read

Owning a pet may offset the increased rate of cognitive decline associated with living alone, new research suggests.

A furry or feathered friend could slow decline in verbal cognition, fluency and memory in older adults living alone. 

The findings of a new cohort study, published in JAMA Network Open, suggest older adults who live alone with a pet experience slower rates of cognitive decline compared to those who live alone without a pet.  

“Our findings provide innovative insights for developing public health policies to slow cognitive decline in older adults living alone,” the researchers concluded. 

Loneliness is a known risk factor for dementia in older adults. Many older people – particularly those who live alone – have pets to reduce feeling lonely.  

To date, cross-sectional studies investigating the effects of pet ownership on rates of cognitive decline have yielded inconsistent results. It has been unclear if and how having a pet provides a protective effect for older adults who live alone.  

In this latest study, researchers examined pet ownership, living arrangement and cognitive functioning data for 8000 participants aged 50 years and older from the ongoing and prospective English Longitudinal Study of Aging for up to 10 years. Thirty-five percent of participants owned pets, while 27% lived alone.  

Pet owners had slower rates of decline in verbal cognition, memory and fluency compared with nonowners after adjusting for covariates such as age, sex, race/ethnicity, education level, employment status, physical activity and comorbid conditions. In contrast, participants who lived alone had faster rates of decline on these measures compared with participants who lived with others. 

Living alone also affected the associations between pet ownership and cognitive decline. Pet owners who lived alone had slower rates of cognitive decline over time, but pet owners who lived with other people experienced similar rates of decline compared to those who lived with someone with a pet. 

Previous research suggests loneliness can increase cognitive decline and the risk of dementia through a variety of means, including accelerating the buildup of beta-amyloid and tau proteins in the brain. 

A key limitation to the research was that pet ownership was only examined at one time point and assumed to be constant for the remainder of the follow-up period, failing to account for any variations in pet ownership during the study.  

JAMA Network Open 2023, online December 26 

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