Companion animals help with cognition in older adults
Q: I have shared my home with pets my whole life. I am now a 76-year-old widow, and my menagerie is down to two small dogs. I just saw on the news that pets keep you mentally sharp. Is that true? I'd like to be able to reassure my sons that my furry companions are a boon and not a burden.
A: We're happy to report a wealth of research continues to find that living with a companion animal is associated with a wide range of benefits. These include enhancing the pet owner's physical, emotional and mental health, and generally improving their quality of life.
We suspect the news report you saw was tied to a recent study that focused on pet ownership among older adults. The results, which were published last summer in the Journal of Aging and Health, suggest that growing older while living with a companion animal can play a role in preserving cognitive function. In their study, the researchers used data gathered by the Health and Retirement Study, an ongoing investigative project that involves about 20,000 adults in the United States, all of them 50 years of age or older. The researchers regularly conduct in-depth interviews with the participants and use tests and other diagnostic tools to amass data about aging. This includes details about physical health, social life, family life, employment, mental health and changes to cognition.
In the pet study you're asking about, the researchers focused on 1,369 adults who did not have any existing cognitive problems. The participants were divided into three categories -- those without a pet, those whose pet had been with them fewer than five years and those living with a pet for five years or more. When the researchers analyzed the cognitive data collected over the course of six years, a surprising connection to pet ownership emerged. Those individuals who lived with a pet performed better on tests that measured both long- and short-term memory than did people of the same age but who did not live with a pet. This beneficial effect of living with a companion animal was even more pronounced in people whose pets had been with them five or more years. Interestingly, this protective effect was seen only in study participants who were 65 years of age or older. That's the age at which it becomes more likely for the symptoms of either cognitive decline or dementia to begin to manifest.
As for why living with a companion animal appears to benefit cognition, the researchers suspect several factors may be at play. Health data showed pet owners in the study tended to have lower body fat percentages, better blood pressure and a lower incidence of diabetes than those without pets. This pointed to greater levels of physical activity, which has long been linked to improved cognitive health.
The group with pets also reported lower levels of stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness, each of which have been shown to adversely affect mental function. We hope this helps you explain to your sons that your dogs are not only a bright spot in your life, but quite possibly just what the doctor ordered.
• Dr. Eve Glazier is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Dr. Elizabeth Ko is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.