Owning a Pet May Slow Cognitive Decline

Older adults who live alone but own a pet may experience a slower rate of cognitive decline, a study suggests.

As our population ages, cognitive decline has become a major public health concern, with the number of people who have dementia estimated to triple by 2050 globally.

While physical activity, a healthy diet, and managing blood pressure are known to prevent cognitive decline, the study published in JAMA Neurology suggests that owning a pet may also have a positive effect on some older adults.

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The researchers used data from 7,945 participants who were 50 years and older. They compared the rates of cognitive decline among pet owners who live with other people, those who live alone but own pets, and non-owners living alone.

Pet ownership was associated with a slower decline in verbal memory and verbal fluency among older adults living alone but not among those living with others.

The rates of cognitive decline were similar between pet owners living with others and pet owners living alone.

The researchers note that the study does not prove that pet ownership slows the rate of cognitive decline. The research examined only two aspects of multidimensional cognitive function and did not assess how the duration of pet ownership may affect cognitive decline.

Health risks of living alone

In 2021, nearly one-third (28.5%) of households in the United States consisted of a single person.

Older adults living alone are more likely to develop dementia than those living with other people. For instance, a 2023 study by Johns Hopkins researchers found that adults over the age of 65 who are socially isolated have a 27% higher dementia risk.

Loneliness and social isolation, defined as the lack of relationships with others and little to no social support or contact, may also elevate the risk of the following conditions:

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  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Addiction
  • Suicidality and self-harm
  • Earlier death

As the number of single-person households is expected to increase, pet ownership may help to reduce feelings of loneliness and anxiety.

Moreover, pet owners have more opportunities to exercise and socialize, leading to further health benefits. Regular walking or playing with pets can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and reduce triglyceride levels.

Clinical trials are needed to determine if pet ownership slows cognitive decline. Meanwhile, taking care of physical and mental health can lead to longer and happier lives.

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