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Having a pet may keep your brain healthy, even in old age

We still don't know what we did to deserve dogs, but if we keep them around we'll have longer to figure it out

By Cassidy Ward
Cassidy Woman with dog GETTY

We may never now exactly how ancient humans teamed up with cats and dogs, but we’re sure glad they did. Having a furry friend is like activating a cheat code for happiness. Even when they’re chewing on the furniture or leaving hairballs on the kitchen floor, it’s hard to be too bummed when there’s a cat or dog within petting distance.

Research has shown that the benefits of having a pet extend beyond simply having a Netflix watching companion who doesn’t talk through the good parts. They can decrease stress and positively impact physical health. Now, according to a preliminary study from scientists at the University of Michigan Medical Center and the University of Florida, we have reason to believe pets also protect our brains from cognitive decline in old age. The study is currently under review and will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 74th annual meeting next month.

The study used data from the Health and Retirement Study, which gathers information from adults over the age of 50, with an average age of 65, across gender, race, and economic demographics. In total, 1,369 participants were considered, and their cognitive abilities compared from 2010 to 2016. Cognition was measured using a series of common tests including the delayed 10-noun free recall test, the serial seven subtraction test, and a backwards count test. Performance on these tests were combined into a composite score of cognition with a possible score of 27. Only participants who showed normal cognitive function during the 2010 tests were included.

Of the nearly 1,400 participants in the study, 53% owned pets and 32% were long-term pet owners, having had their companion animals for at least five years. Participants were asked to return and re-take cognitive tests each year, in order to quantify ordinary cognitive decline occurring with age.

While there are a number of factors which likely contribute to cognitive health later in life, including socioeconomic status, the team found a strong correlation between pet ownership and decreased cognitive decline.

At the end of the six years of study, pet owners had an average cognitive score which was 1.2 points higher than those without pets. The effect was strongest in those individuals who were long-term pet owners, suggesting that owning a pet is a benefit all on its own, but maintaining and nurturing that relationship over time makes it stronger.

At present, it’s unclear what the precise mechanism behind the cognitive benefit is. It’s possible it ties back to the previously mentioned stress reduction. Doctors and scientists know that stress has a negative effect on cognition, so simply having a companion animal which reduces stress could be enough to realize some benefit. It could also be that pet owners maintain more active lifestyles. A pet requires some level of care, whether that’s simply remaining mobile enough to fill the food and water bowls and clean out a litter box or going on walks around the neighborhood or to the dog park, people who have companion animals tend to be less sedentary.

Interestingly, because the study used data which also considered various demographic criteria, scientists were able to consider how the effect differed among specific groups. While pet ownership — particularly long-term pet ownership — was beneficial across the board, it was especially beneficial among Black adults, college educated adults, and men. The study was not designed to identify the underlying cause for the different levels of impact across demographics and more research is needed.

Regardless of the reason, it appears that pets are keeping our brains sharper longer, and giving us one more reason to keep them well-supplied with toys, treats, and snugs. As if we needed another reason.