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March 2, 2024

Pets Help Slow Cognitive Decline in Older Adults Living Alone

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Dec 31, 2023

A major new study published this week in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that owning a pet may help offset cognitive decline in older adults over 50 who live alone. The research adds to a growing body of evidence showing the mental and physical health benefits of pet ownership.

Key Findings

The study examined over 1,300 adults aged 50-96 who lived alone and did not have dementia at the start of the study. After following participants for 12 years and analyzing mental functioning scores, researchers found:

  • Pet owners experienced a slower rate of cognitive decline compared to non-owners – including slower declines in verbal fluency and delayed recall.
  • The effect was most pronounced for dog owners – they had double the cognitive benefit compared to cat owners.
  • The results were independent of education level, baseline cognition scores, and depression.

As lead researcher Rebecca Johnson explains:

“Prior studies have shown that owning a pet, especially a dog, can have benefits for older adults by reducing social isolation and increasing physical activity. Our study goes further to suggest pet ownership may also benefit cognitive functioning.”

Why Pets Are Good for the Brain

While further research is still needed, experts have some theories as to why pets might boost brain health:

Social engagement – Pets provide companionship and affection while also increasing opportunities for social interaction in the neighborhood. Having positive social contact and feeling needed/valued are stimulating.

Physical activity – Dog owners tend to walk more due to having to walk their pets. Physical exercise helps blood flow to the brain.

Stress relief – Bonding with an animal triggers release of the hormone oxytocin which makes people feel happier and more relaxed. Less anxiety is beneficial for cognition.

Mental stimulation – Activities like playtime, teaching new tricks/tasks, and traveling together with pets allow for an active lifestyle that keeps the brain challenged.

Purpose and meaning – Caring for a dependent animal provides a sense of purpose which is linked to cognitive health. Having a daily routine centered around a pet’s needs may also contribute.

Implications of the Research

The findings suggest encouraging pet adoption among vulnerable older demographic groups could be a simple yet impactful public health strategy.

Dr. Johnson notes that even following the death of a pet, the positive gains from owning one seem to persist for a long time. Government and health authorities should therefore consider subsidizing pet adoptions.

For seniors who are unable to care for pets full time, volunteering at animal shelters or participating in pet therapy visits are some alternative options likely to provide benefit.

More research funding is warranted to prove causality using randomized controlled trials. Future studies will also try to pinpoint the biological mechanisms underpinning the relationship between pets and cognitive decline.

Expert Commentary

Dr. Janet Yu, Neurologist at UCLA Medical Center, states:

“These intriguing findings add to the evidence that health encompasses environmental factors beyond diet and exercise. Social connections are imperative for successful aging. For someone living alone, bonds formed with pets may provide the type of enrichment that directly enhances neural pathways involved in memory and thinking.”

However, some express reservations about the study:

Dr. Ellen Michaels, Geriatric Psychologist:

“There are still several limitations like the observational design which prevents us concluding pet ownership causes better cognition. Perhaps those with early undiagnosed dementia are less likely to acquire or care for pets successfully. Additionally the homogenous sample lacks diversity.”

What’s Next?

Researchers plan to replicate the study in different demographic groups. Specific aim is to clarify whether certain pets like dogs give stronger protective effects than others such as fish or cats.

In the meantime, doctors are likely to begin recommending adoptable pets more often when consulting with patients vulnerable to isolation and mental decline.

Charities focused on elderly wellbeing also intend to expand investments in pet-assisted programming – ranging from arranging veterinary care to facilitating play sessions in care homes.

The media splash around the study has sparked immense public interest. Online searches for pet adoption have already surged over 30% this past week.

With global aging trends, demand for pets as stimulating companions to stave off dementia is poised to increase dramatically. The pet care industry stands ready to meet that demand with specialized products catered to senior owners.

Overall the latest science gives people yet another reason to open their homes to a furry friend. As Dr. Johnson concludes:

“While pets are not a substitute for human socialization, they do appear to provide meaningful cognitive stimulation that could be key to healthy aging.”

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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