Having a furry, scaly, or feathered friend in your life not only brings a great deal of joy but the science shows that it can improve your physical and mental health as well.
Pet ownership can lower stress hormones, reduce blood pressure, counteract loneliness, and improve mood.
All these benefits have a positive impact on the brain, and taken together, provide powerful protection against cognitive decline.
Mid-to-late-life is the most popular age for owning a pet. It’s estimated that nearly 70 percent of Americans in their fifties own a pet, dropping about ten percent a decade later. Most people consider their pets family members and are as strongly attached to them as they would be a close relative.
In terms of the pet’s effect on their owner’s health, results have been mixed. Some pet owners have reported positive physical and psychological effects, even an extended lifespan, but not everyone. In addition, there’s limited information on a pet’s influence on brain health.
In fact, no study has ever investigated whether duration of pet ownership impacts cognitive health, so a team of scientists from the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor decided to take a closer look.
Long-Term Owners Fare Best
The research team analyzed data from a large study of Medicare beneficiaries called the Health and Retirement Study. This began over three decades ago with regularly updated data on the health of over-50s Americans.
For the current study, participants included 1,369 men and women with an average age of 65 who had normal cognitive skills when the study began. Just over half – 53 percent – were pet owners, of which 32 percent had owned a pet for at least five years.
They gave each participant a battery of cognitive tests that included numeracy, word and memory skills. Then researchers graded the results to develop a composite score that ranged from zero to 27 for each person.
When researchers compared scores for those without pets versus those who owned pets, the results were good news for animal lovers.
The Longer You Own A Pet, The Bigger The Benefit
After six years follow up, cognitive scores declined at a much slower rate among the pet owners. On average, the scores were 1.2 points higher for pet owners than non-pet owners. What’s more, participants who owned their pet for five years or longer had the slowest rate of cognitive decline.
Study author Tiffany Braley said, “Prior studies have suggested that the human-animal bond may have health benefits like decreasing blood pressure and stress. Our results suggest pet ownership may also be protective against cognitive decline.”
Dr. Braley made two suggestions that could explain the results.
Wide-Ranging Benefits Due to Stress Relief
“As stress can negatively affect cognitive function, the potential stress-buffering effects of pet ownership could provide a plausible reason for our findings. A companion animal can also increase physical activity, which could benefit cognitive health.”
Dogs were the most popular pet among the participants and might explain the cognitive boost from physical activity. However, cats were the second most popular and other pets cared for included hamsters, rabbits, birds, fish, and reptiles.
This theory implies that stress reduction is the key factor, but Dr. Richard Isaacson, a world-renowned neurologist, researcher, and director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Florida Atlantic University, thinks the mechanism is more broadly based than stress alone.
“Having a pet or multiple pets combines many core components of a brain-healthy lifestyle.
“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.”