Pets may help delay cognitive decline in long-term pet owners as they age, says a new study

Having a pet for a period of five years or longer may help delay cognitive decline in pet owners as they get older, according to a preliminary study released last month. In a press release published by the American Academy of Neurology, one of the study's authors, Tiffany Braley of the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, said: "Prior studies have suggested that the human-animal bond may have health benefits like decreasing blood pressure and stress. Our results suggest pet ownership may also be protective against cognitive decline."
According to Healthline, Applebaum and the senior author on the paper, Dr. Tiffany Braley—associate professor of neurology and clinical neuroimmunologist at the University of Michigan—analyzed cognitive data from a total of 1,369 older adults for their study. The participants were picked from those involved in the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative study that is tracking the lives of U.S. adults ages 50 and older. They had an average age of 65 and normal cognitive skills at the start of the study. "A total of 53% owned pets, and 32% were long-term pet owners, defined as those who owned pets for five years or more. Of study participants, 88% were white, 7% were Black, 2% were Hispanic and 3% were of another ethnicity or race," the press release stated.
Participants were given multiple cognitive tests in the study to develop a composite cognitive score for each person, ranging from zero to 27. Researchers used the scores to estimate the associations between years of pet ownership and cognitive function. According to the press release, "over six years, cognitive scores decreased at a slower rate in pet owners. This difference was strongest among long-term pet owners. Taking into account other factors known to affect cognitive function, the study showed that long-term pet owners, on average, had a cognitive composite score that was 1.2 points higher at six years compared to non-pet owners. The researchers also found that the cognitive benefits associated with longer pet ownership were stronger for Black adults, college-educated adults and men."
While the findings are promising, Braley believes that more research is needed to further explore the possible reasons for these associations. "As stress can negatively affect cognitive function, the potential stress-buffering effects of pet ownership could provide a plausible reason for our findings," she said. "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." Braley was also careful to note that the study can't prove a cause-and-effect relationship between ownership and cognition, but can only provide early evidence that suggests long-term pet ownership could be beneficial for delaying cognitive decline.
"Despite the compelling associations identified in this study, additional work is necessary to understand the relationship between pet ownership and cognition," said Braley. "However, if a causal relationship exists between pet ownership and cognitive health, such data would provide further support for the development of programs to support older adults who are interested in maintaining or initiating pet ownership." Applebaum agreed, adding that this could occur via public policy and community partnerships. "If long-term pet ownership does provide a protective effect for cognitive health, it would add to the evidence that public policy should support keeping pets and owners together," she said.

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