If you’re over 50, you live alone, and you want to keep your mind as young as possible for as long as possible, get a pet. That’s the big takeaway from a new study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Just owning a pet made a notable difference in the rate of cognitive decline among older adults who lived alone, a team of eight researchers in medical epidemiology and statistics has found, after following the cases of nearly 8,000 older adults. Even more remarkably, the beneficial influence of owning a pet showed up just during a nine-year period – which gives you some idea of how much effect it might have over 20 years or longer.
And cognitive decline isn’t just a bad thing in its own right, it’s also often a precursor to full-blown dementia.
“Pet association was associated with slower rates of decline in composite verbal cognition, verbal memory, and verbal fluency among individuals living alone,” write Dr. Ciyong Lu and his colleagues from the school of public health at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China. This came after they’d crunched the numbers from a major health research project in Great Britain, the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.
Participants in the study had an average age of 66, and just over half were women. They were interviewed every two years. The study followed them from 2010-2011 to 2018-2019.
Those who lived alone and didn’t have a pet fared worst in terms of cognitive decline on several measures. But those who lived alone and did have a pet fared about as well as those who lived with other people.
This isn’t an isolated study, either.
A scientific paper published two years ago in the Journal of Aging and Health found that among a sample of the over-65s, those who had owned a pet for at least five years “demonstrated higher composite cognitive scores, compared to non-pet owners,” while “sustained pet ownership was associated with higher immediate and delayed word recall scores.”
A study in 2020 found that among a group of over 50s, those who either owned a pet, or had regular contact with a pet, showed “etter cognitive status compared with those who did not own pets or had no regular contact with pets independent of age.”
Another study in 2016 found “significant positive correlation between pet attachment and executive function” among homebound older adults, meaning it wasn’t just enough to own a pet – you had to be emotionally attached to it.
Maybe most amazingly, a study of around 100 adults of all ages found that “owning a pet can reduce one’s brain age by up to 15 years.” In the sample, the authors found that “pet ownership was related to higher levels of cognition and larger brain structures, and these effects were largest in dog owners.” The benefits could be found in “better processing speed, attentional orienting, and episodic memory for stories,” and in other measures of brain health, the researchers found.
There are obvious and inevitable limitations to all of these studies, which is that the authors typically use cautious language, such as saying pet ownership is “associated” with better cognitive scores rather than causing them. (Better cognitive scores could, in theory, cause pet ownership.) Many involve small samples of just a hundred or a few hundred individuals. And there is only so much you can prove using real-world studies, where the researchers have to rely on self-reporting by the subjects.
Nonetheless the growing number of studies pointing in the same direction should be a cause for hope. This is especially true because we face growing, related epidemics of aging, loneliness and dementia.
The percentage of Americans who live alone has jumped by nearly a half in the past 50 years. Today it’s nearly 30%. The number of people worldwide with dementia is expected to triple over the next 25 years. Scientists still know so little about what causs it, and effective treatments are scarce, very costly, and of limited use.
Bring on the pets.