Do pets really help older people stay mentally sharp?

Source: Photo by Hal Herzog

You’ve probably seen TV commercials in which an elderly man or woman looks into a camera and swears that a daily dose of Prevagen, a dietary supplement, has made it easier for them to remember things. Don’t believe it. No solid research supports these claims. In fact, the New York Attorney General called Privagan Marketing Campaign a “Clear Cut Fraud.”

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Effects of Pets on Cognition in Elderly People?

But is it possible that living with a pet can keep older people moving faster as they age? The idea is not far-fetched. Research on the effects of companion animals on human mental and physical health has yielded mixed results. However, some studies have found that pets can reduce Stress In their owners, they facilitate social interaction, increase physical activity, and encourage secretions Hormones Like Oxytocin.

Based on these findings, five similar studies have recently been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals on the link between pet ownership and cognitive decline in the elderly. All studies:

  • There were longitudinal investigations of age-related changes in mental abilities in pet owners and non-owners.
  • Data were based on existing epidemiological studies of the effects of aging on mental and physical health.
  • Tried to control for “covariates” — non-dominant factors that could account for differences. Perception As genderAge, income, and chronic health conditions
  • There were correlational studies rather than clinical trials. They could find a statistical association between pet ownership and cognitive abilities but could not prove that the differences were due to living with the pet.

The Studies

Here are summaries of studies listed by publication dates.

Study 1. Older dog owners were worse off than non-owners.

Published in 2019. The first study An international team of researchers, led by Nicola Veroni, examined the relationship between pet ownership and cognitive changes in older people. They used data from more than 8,000 adults who participated. English Longitudinal Study of AgainTo evaluate changes in g memory and oral fluency over six years in dog, cat, and non-pet owners.

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After six years, the dog owners’ memory scores had declined faster than the non-pet owners’ scores. However, cat owners fared better—in fact, they had less decline in verbal fluency than non-pet owners. (See full text).

Study 2. Pets take care of had no effect on the probability of Dementia.

Sandra Branson and Stanley Crone examined whether pet care reduces cognitive decline over 12 years. Their results were published in 2022. Journal Anthrozoos. Subjects were 673 pet caregivers and 1,578 individuals without pets. A study of health and retirementA longitudinal study of a large and ethnically diverse sample of Americans over 50 years of age. Changes in mental acuity were assessed using a composite score on the Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status Test (TICSm).

Once factors such as gender, age, Education, raceand when exercise was taken into account, the researchers found no difference in risk Mild cognitive impairment or dementia in pet caregivers and those who did not own a pet.

Study 3 – Some older pet owners were mentally sharper (in some ways).

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Jennifer Applebaum from the University of Florida and colleagues also analyzed pre-existing health data. Retirement the study. They examined changes in cognitive abilities between 2012 and 2016 waves in 1,369 pet owners and non-owners who were given TICSm telephone interview assessments. Unlike Branson and Crone, they divided pet owners into two groups—long-term pet owners (more than five years) and short-term pet owners.

As Reported in the Journal of Aging and Health., the researchers looked at the benefits of pet ownership to a subgroup of participants — people over the age of 65 who had owned their pet for more than five years. They showed less decline in their cognitive scores than non-owners. This difference was attributed to their better performance on verbal recall and memory. (The differences in scores were “statistically significant,” but their clinical relevance is unclear.) Having a pet did not affect participants 65 or younger or those with pets less than five years of age. To no avail.

Study 4. Japanese dog owners were less likely to develop dementia.

In a ___ 2023 studyJapanese researchers examined the onset of dementia in 11,194 elderly residents. Ota Genki Senior Project. (Ota is a suburb of Tokyo.)

The results were impressive. Four years after being initially diagnosed, current dog owners were 40 percent less likely to develop dementia than those who did not own a dog. Unfortunately, having a cat had no effect on dementia rates. However, pet ownership is not common in Japan—only 9 percent of participants had a dog and 6 percent lived with a cat.

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Study 5 – Walking Pets and Dogs Improves Brain Performance

The latest study was published by a research team led by Erica Friedman and Nancy Gee. Published in the journal. Scientific reports. Their analyzes were based on 637 dog, cat and non-pet-owning adults. Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. As a group, the subjects were highly educated, married, and economically prosperous. And when they were first tested, they were in good health, with no cognitive impairment. Participants were assessed on 11 cognitive measures every one to four years.

After adjusting for age, and a variety of chronic health conditions, dog owners showed lower rates of cognitive decline than non-owners on six of these measures and cat owners on four of them. In addition, dog owners who walked their dogs fared better than owners who did not. “We provide important longitudinal evidence that pet ownership and dog walking contribute to the maintenance of cognitive function with aging,” the researchers concluded.

Good news and bad news

As social psychologist David Pizarro warns on a delightful podcast. Psychology, “You can never rely on the results of a single study.” His point is illustrated by differences in the results of studies of the effects of pets on cognition as people age.

One study found that pets had no effect on older people’s cognitive abilities, three found that pet owners were at least somewhat better, and one study found that dog owners (but not cat owners) No) are worse off than people without a companion animal. (As is often the case, the only studies that found positive effects of pets on cognition in older people attention of the media.)

The first good news: The results of three of the five studies were encouraging. The bad news is that two studies found no “pet effect” on cognitive decline.

The Causal Arrow Problem

Then there is the vexing “causal arrow” problem. Pet owners in these studies were younger, more educated, wealthier, more physically active and in better health. Does living with a pet lead to better cognition in the elderly or are cognitively intact older people better able to care for companion animals?

I know that my parents’ dog, named Willy, brought them great joy. However, the jury is still out on whether pets reduce the ravages of aging on their owners’ mental abilities. But I believe that pets help delay memory loss far better than the empirical evidence of Prevagen’s effectiveness.


Branson, S., & Cron, S. (2022). Pet care and risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia in older US adults. Anthrozos, 35(2), 203-217.

Applebaum, JW, Shieu, MM, McDonald, SE, Dunietz, GL, & Braley, TJ (2023). The effect of permanent pet ownership on cognitive health: a population-based study. Journal of Aging and Health, 35(3-4), 230-241.

Taniguchi, Y., Seino, S., Ikeuchi, T., Hata, T., Shinkai, S., Kitamura, A., & Fujiwara, Y. (2023). Protective effects of dog ownership against disabling dementia in older community-dwelling Japanese: a longitudinal study. Preventive medicine reports, 36102465.

Veronese, N., Smith, L., Noventa, V., López-Sánchez, GF, Demurtas, J., Sharpley, CF, … & Jackson, SE (2019). Pet ownership and cognitive decline in older people. Geriatric care, 5(2).

Friedmann, E., Gee, NR, Simonsick, EM, Kitner-Triolo, MH, Resnick, B., Adesanya, I., … & Gurlu, M. (2023). Pet ownership and maintenance of cognitive function in community-dwelling older adults: Evidence from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA). Scientific reports, 13(1), 14738.

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