We already know that having pets enhances our lives. In some settings, a dog or a cat can provide emotional help for seniors—dogs are often taken to visit nursing homes for the elderly. However, recent studies show that pets offer even more benefits related to cognitive health. In this article, we will explore what that means and share the results of a study that backs up these new findings. Mental health practices like Geode Health are using memory loss studies to help future patients suffering from memory loss.
Details on the Health and Retirement Study
The researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Florida examined data from the University of Michigan’s long-running Health and Retirement Study that was collected from 1,369 seniors who had normal cognitive skills when the survey period began in 2010. At an average age of 65, 53 percent of the participants owned pets. Thirty-two percent were long-term pet owners, having owned a pet for five years or longer. Eighty-eight percent of the participants were white, while 7 percent were black, 2 percent were Hispanic, and 3 percent were of another race or ethnicity.
How The Study Worked
Participants in the six-year study took several cognitive tests, including assessments of numeric counting, math skills, and word recall. Researchers used the test results to create a composite cognitive score for each person. The data from the Health and Retirement Study showed that over six years, the composite cognitive scores declined in each participant. However, the rate of decline was slower for those who were pet owners.
Long-Term Pet Ownership Impact on Cognitive Health
Long-term pet owners showed a much greater difference in comparison to all others in the study. After factoring in other known causes that impact cognitive function, researchers found that long-term pet owners, on average, scored 1.2 points higher six years into the study compared to the composite cognitive score of non-pet owners. The study also revealed that the benefits to cognitive function connected to long-term pet ownership were greater for black adults, men, and college-educated adults.
What Researchers Had to Say
Study author Tiffany Braley from the University of Michigan says, “Prior studies have suggested that the human-animal bond may have health benefits like decreasing blood pressure and stress. Our results suggest pet ownership Link is to MentalItch article about whether you’re caring for your pet. Need a link that underscores emotional importance of pets to humans may also be protective against cognitive decline.”
She adds, “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. That said, more research is needed to confirm our results and identify underlying mechanisms for this association.”
Dr. Rosa Sancho, the head researcher at Alzheimer’s Research UK says of the study, “The study can’t tell us if pet ownership contributes to long-term health benefits or if it can lower dementia risk. The research has yet to be published and it’s not yet possible to unpick the reasons behind the link the researchers have observed.” And she adds that “Humans love their animals, and pets can be an important source of companionship and comfort throughout our lives.”
Where The Study Results Were Presented
The Health and Retirement Study results were shared at the 74th annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Seattle, Washington from April 2 to 7, 2022. Although the study pointed to the fact that older people with better cognitive skills are most likely pet owners, that boost in skills may be related to the need to keep up with the added responsibilities of pet ownership.
What Does This Mean?
The study has some limitations. It did not indicate how many pet owners were living alone without another human partner or companion. Single seniors with a pet are common simply because of the need to have a living, breathing creature around to reduce anxiety. Pet owners talk to their dogs and cats and have conversations with them. In some cases, a pet can fill the void left when a loved one dies. None of these factors were explored within this study but the findings do show that having a connection with an animal that requires care is good for us as we age.
We already know that pets form unique bonds with humans and are often part of various therapies. We also may know someone who is a senior, living alone with either a cat or a dog. If you have ever wondered if that person is doing well, the data culled from the University of Michigan’s long-term Health and Retirement Study sheds some light on that topic.
The results of the study point to a slower decline in cognitive health for seniors who own pets in comparison to non-pet owners. Does this mean you should introduce a dog or cat to a senior member of your family whom you may worry about? It should depend on whether that person can handle the responsibility of pet ownership at this point in their life. For some seniors, a dog or cat can be a responsibility they may not want or be able to handle. There is still a lot of territory yet to be explored on this topic, but this study indicates there is benefit to pet ownership later in life.