A recent study revealed a slower cognitive decline in older adults who owned pets.

Prior to presentation at the 2022 annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, results of a study detailed by Tiffany Braley, MD, MS, an associate professor of neurology, and colleagues of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, indicated that over a period of six years, pet owners’ cognitive scores decreased more slowly than those of people without pets.

Although the study couldn’t confirm a causal relationship between pet ownership and cognition, the findings offer early evidence suggesting that long-term pet ownership could be protective against cognitive decline. Findings may provide a basic understanding of the way relationships with companion animals contribute to brain health. “Pet ownership should not be sought as a means to preserve cognitive health,” Braley said.

Findings focused on 1,369 individuals with a mean age of 65 in the longitudinal Health and Retirement Study. Researchers used cognitive assessments from 2010 to 2016 to develop a composite score derived from an immediate and delayed word recall test, serial subtraction test and backward count test, with a total scoring range of 0 to 27.

Overall, 53% of participants owned pets and 32% were long-term pet owners, having owned a pet for five years or more. Cognitive benefits associated with longer pet ownership were more prominent for individuals who were black, college educated and male, according to the researchers.

Previous studies have shown that pet ownership can reduce loneliness and depression, both of which have been associated with cognitive changes.

British researchers have shown that pets may help people with early dementia. “The IDEAL program was a unique opportunity to examine associations between pet ownership and walking, loneliness, depression and quality of life in a large cohort of people with mild to moderate dementia,” said Carol Opdebeeck, PhD, of Manchester Metropolitan University in England.

“The key to any benefits of pet ownership in this study was in the person being involved in the care of their pet,” Opdebeeck said. People who cared for a dog walked more and were less lonely, according to Opdebeeck. “People who had a pet but were not involved in its care were more likely to be depressed and have poorer quality of life than people with no pet or those with a pet who were involved in its care.”

“We do not recommend pet ownership as a therapeutic intervention,” said co-author Jennifer Applebaum, MS, of the University of Florida in Gainesville. “However, we do recommend that people who own pets be supported in keeping them through public policy and community partnerships. An unwanted separation from a pet can be devastating, and marginalized populations are most at risk of these unwanted outcomes.”