Owning a Pet May Be Good for Your Brain

May 2, 2022

Dogs and cats may help to keep the aging brain in good working order. And the longer you have a pet, the slower the rate of decline in thinking and memory skills as you age, a new study found.

“Prior studies have suggested that the human-animal bond may have health benefits like decreasing blood pressure and stress,” said study author Dr. Tiffany Braley of the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor. “Our results suggest pet ownership may also be protective against cognitive decline.” 

The findings were presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 74th Annual Meeting in Seattle.

For this rather large and robust study, researchers looked at 1,369 older men and women who were part of the ongoing Health and Retirement Study, which follows the health of people 50 and older who are on Medicare. At the study’s start, all were free of dementia or serious memory problems, and their average age was 65. More than half had a pet, and about a third had owned a pet for at least five years.

Participants underwent simple tests of memory and thinking skills. Tasks included having to recall a list of 10 words after hearing them, and repeating the words after five minutes; counting backward from 20; and subtracting 7 serially from the number 100. 

Over the next six years, cognitive scores of the older men and women tended to go down. But memory and thinking skills fell at a slower rate among the pet owners, especially those who had owned a pet for at least five years.

The researchers note that more research is needed, but that pet ownership may have benefits for brain health for various reasons. As anyone who loves a cat or dog or other pet knows, pets provide companionship and can be great stress diffusers. “As stress negatively affects cognitive function, the potential stress-buffering effects of pet ownership could provide a plausible reason for our findings,” said Dr. Braley. 

In the study, the pet owners tended to have lower blood pressures, and high blood pressure has been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive problems.

“A companion animal can also increase physical activity, which could benefit cognitive health,” Dr. Braley added. Many dog owners, for instance, take their pets for regular walks, and numerous studies have shown that regular physical activity is linked to a lower rate of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Getting out and about with a dog also increases interaction with other pet owners who live in your neighborhood, and social interaction has likewise been tied to a lower Alzheimer’s risk. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that “studies have shown that the bond between people and their pets is linked to several health benefits,” including decreased blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels, which are tied to a lower risk of dementia. Owning a pet also leads to less feelings of loneliness, and feeling lonely is likewise a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. 

A growing number of hospitals, nursing homes and other health-care facilities across the country are accepting specially trained dogs and cats as part of pet therapy programs. Having an affectionate pet visit during a hospital or nursing home stay can be especially beneficial, including for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. A visit from a therapy animal has been shown to ease agitation, boost mood and promote social interaction in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Presented at the American Academy of Neurology Annual Meeting, Seattle, April 2, 2022.


Alzheimer's Articles