Having a pet may boost your brain health, study says

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  • The benefits of having a pet reach far beyond mere companionship.
  • In a new preliminary study, researchers compared pet owners to non-pet owners for six years.
  • They found that cognitive scores decreased more slowly in the pet-owner group.

Humans and their pets have shared a special bond for as long as we can remember, and the benefits of this relationship range from providing companionship, reducing stress and anxiety, to encouraging exercise, keeping us fit and healthy.

But the findings of a new study put the power of pets on a new level: long-term pet ownership can improve brain health and lead to slower cognitive decline.

"Prior studies have suggested that the human-animal bond may have health benefits like decreasing blood pressure and stress," study author Dr Tiffany Braley from the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, US, said in a news release.

She added: "Our results suggest pet ownership may also be protective against cognitive decline."

Braley, who is also a member of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), and her colleagues will present their preliminary findings at the AAN’s 74th Annual Meeting in April this year.

The study

The team studied cognitive data of nearly 1 370 older adults with an average age of 65 years who had normal cognitive skills at the start of the study. 

A total of 53% had pets, while 32% had owned a pet for five years or more (classified as long-term pet owners). 

The team used data from the Health and Retirement Study, a large study where people were given multiple cognitive tests, including subtraction, numeric counting, and word recall. They then used the results to develop a composite cognitive score for each individual, ranging from zero to 27. 

Following this, they used the composite cognitive scores to calculate the association between years of pet ownership and cognitive function.

A variety of pets 

After taking into account other factors that can affect cognitive function, the researchers found that over six years cognitive scores decreased at a slower rate in the group that owned pets.

Importantly, the difference was particularly notable among long-term pet owners. Having a pet for five years or longer delayed cognitive decline by 1.2 points over the study period, compared to the rate of decline in people without pets.

And it wasn’t just cats or dogs that had this effect as some of the participants had rabbits, birds, hamsters, fish, and reptiles, Jennifer Applebaum, a sociology doctoral candidate and National Institute of Health predoctoral fellow at the University of Florida, told CNN that "dogs were most prevalent, followed by cats".

Potential explanation

The reason for the benefits of pet ownership is not fully clear, and Braley stated that future research is needed to further explore the association. The team, however, proposed one potential reason: “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. More research is needed to confirm our results and identify underlying mechanisms for this association,” Braley said.

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READ | Dog owners likely to report better emotional health during Covid-19 pandemic, study shows

READ | Pets and the pandemic: 'On the tough days, they lifted my spirits and gave me a reason to smile'

READ | Why the pandemic made some cats sick with stress – and how we can help them

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