Owning a Pet Over Age 65 May Help Keep You Mentally Fit As You Age, Study Finds
Pets improve our health and well-being in numerous ways, from helping to alleviate depression symptoms and relieve stress, to encouraging us to walk more. And now there's more good news for those with pets: a new study has found that owning a pet over the age of 65 may also help prevent cognitive decline as you age.
Researchers at the University of Michigan tested older people's cognition—the ability to gain and retain knowledge through memory, problem-solving, and judgment—over a six-year period. Lead study author Tiffany Braley, MD, a clinical professor of neurology at the University of Michigan Medical Center, and her colleagues found that long-term pet owners logged a higher composite score on those tests than non-pet owners.
"Prior studies have suggested that the human-animal bond may have health benefits like decreasing blood pressure and stress," Braley said in a news release from the American Academy of Neurology. "Our results suggest pet ownership may also be protective against cognitive decline."
The researchers used cognitive data from participants in U of M's longitudinal Health and Retirement Study. These individuals included 1,369 older adults with an average age of 65. Fifty-three percent of them owned pets while 32 percent had owned pets for five years or more, the academy said.
At the beginning of the study, these participants had normal cognitive skills. Through a series of cognitive tests that focused on subtraction, counting, and word recall, each person earned a score ranging from zero to 27. On average over six years, results indicated that long-term pet owners had cognitive composite scores that were 1.2 points higher compared to non-pet owners. Participants who were male, Black, or college-educated seemed to benefit most.
This goes beyond the occasional interaction with therapy animals, so what might make the difference?
"As stress can negatively affect cognitive function, the potential stress-buffering effects of pet ownership could provide a plausible reason for our findings," said Braley.
She added that companion animals prompt an increase in physical activity—walks, playtime—which might also improve cognitive health. More research is needed, however, to confirm their results, Braley said. The preliminary findings will be presented in April at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting.
Honestly? We're not surprised to learn this. We hear stories all the time about the incredible love shared between older foster parents and their pets and how seniors who adopt rescue animals find new purpose and joy. So we're happy to do our part to ensure healthy, happy lives!
- Here are some of the best dogs for seniors and the most affectionate cat breeds.
- Meals on Wheels Pet Grants, in partnership with PetSmart Charities, provide basic supplies to seniors with pets.
- The Humane Society of the United States offers a list of nationwide resources to help pet owners in need that might greatly reduce the cost of veterinary care and other necessities.
Senior citizens can also ask their veterinarians for local organizations that might offer additional assistance.