Photo: Brawner Raymond
A new study has found that having a pet companion of at least five years may mitigate memory loss and cognitive decline. In addition, pet ownership was especially beneficial for working verbal memory, such as memorizing word lists.
“To our knowledge, our study is the first to consider the effect of duration of pet ownership on cognitive health,” first author Jennifer Applebaum, a sociology doctoral candidate and National Institute of Health predoctoral fellow at University of Florida, told CNN in an email.
Applebaum said that participants of the study cared for different species, including rabbits, hamsters, birds, fish and reptiles, although “dogs were most prevalent, followed by cats.”
Neuroimmunologist Dr. Tiffany Braley, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan, said that the most benefit was observed in people who owned household pets for at least five years, showing a delay in cognitive decline by 1.2 points compared with the rate of decline in people without pets.
“These findings provide early evidence to suggest that long-term pet ownership could be protective against cognitive decline,” said Braley, a senior author of the study to be presented in April at the American Academy of Neurology’s 74th Annual Meeting.
However, it could not further explain why as the study could only show an association, not a direct cause-and-effect between pet ownership and cognition.
But Braley said that previous studies have pointed to the harmful effects of stress, especially chronic stress, on brain health.
“Prior research has also identified associations between interactions with companion animals and physiological measures of stress reduction, including reductions in cortisol levels and blood pressure, which in the long term could have an impact on cognitive health,” she said.
Experts also add that pet ownership improves social companionship and a sense of duty and purpose.
“Having a pet or multiple pets combines many core components of a brain-healthy lifestyle,” said Dr. Richard Isaacson, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic in the Center for Brain Health at Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine.
“Cognitive engagement, socialization, physical activity and having a sense of purpose can separately, or even more so in combination, address key modifiable risk factors for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease dementia,” said Isaacson, who was not involved in the study.
Cognitive data from more than 1,300 adults who participated in the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative study, were used in the latest research. The Health and Retirement Study tracked the lives of Americans age 50 and older.
Anyone with cognitive decline at the start of the research was excluded. When the sample was finalized, over 53% owned pets. Pet owners tended to be of higher socioeconomic status, and experts say it could be reason for the benefits, because those with more income are more likely to bring their pet to their doctor and attend to their health.
The study said that any brain boost associated with owning pets over five years was “more prominent for Black adults, college-educated adults, and men.”
“More research is needed to explain these findings,” Applebaum said. Because previous research has been mostly among samples of primarily white women, “we are lacking sufficient information about men (and other genders) AND people of color, especially Black pet owners,” she said.
Still, this is not a cure-all for cognitive decline. Studies have also shown that pet owners can be lonely, depressed, and have chronic conditions that may make pet ownership a negative experience.
“We do not recommend pet ownership as a therapeutic intervention,” Applebaum said. “However, we do recommend that people who own pets be supported in keeping them via public policy and community partnerships.”
Removing pet fees on rental housing and providing free or low-cost vet services would help pet owners keep their pets, “particularly in low-income communities and communities of color,” Applebaum said.
Other suggestions include providing foster or boarding support for people who are unexpectedly unavailable to care for their pets due to a health crisis.
“An unwanted separation from a pet can be devastating for a bonded owner, and marginalized populations are most at-risk of these unwanted outcomes,” she said.