Does owning a pet help prevent dementia in the elderly?

A recent study found that pet care — especially in lonely and elderly people — can help reduce the rate of cognitive decline.

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We all know the saying “Dogs are for life, not just for Christmas”.

That phrase is especially appropriate this year, as new research suggests that dogs and other household pets can help keep the brain active later in life.

Dogs are well-known for their ability to improve fitness levels in humans, but now, a British study has found that pets can reduce memory loss over a decade compared to those without them.

However, the findings, published in JAMA Neurology, show that pet ownership is only associated with a slower rate of decline in cognitive skills among older adults living alone — and not among those living with other people.

The scientists behind the research say it suggests pet ownership is therefore a good alternative for people who don’t interact with others regularly.

This includes those who have lost their spouse or other family members.

The report’s authors used data from 7,945 adults aged 50 and over living in the UK.

Over nine years, they compared rates of decline in cognitive skills between pet owners and non-pet owners.

Each year, participants were asked to take several different tests. These included naming as many animals as possible in one minute and rereading 10 unrelated words immediately after they were given and after a delay.

The tests measured verbal memory and fluency — both known skills needed to perform daily tasks and remain independent in old age.

The study showed that people living on their own had the most significant mental decline – but this was greatly offset if someone was caring for a pet.

Dr. Yinzi Li, lead author of the study, explained that loneliness is a known risk factor for dementia and that pets can help with social isolation and cognitive decline.

“It is worth noting that compared to pet owners who lived with others, pet owners who lived alone did not show faster rates of decline in verbal memory or verbal fluency,” he said.

“These findings preliminarily suggest that pet ownership may completely offset the association of living alone with rapid decline in verbal memory and verbal fluency in older adults,” Lee added.

The research findings did not specify the type of pet owned by the participants, but suggest that pets are useful in addition to keeping their humans physically fit.

The findings come days after separate research from the University of Exeter and Maastricht University was released which found that social isolation is one of several risk factors for early onset dementia.

Scientists previously thought that genetics were the only cause of dementia – especially in early-onset sufferers.

The team from Exeter and Maastricht, however, discovered that health problems, poverty and lack of education, as well as loneliness and depression, play a key role.

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Commenting on the findings of both reports, Dr Leah Merslin, Head of Clinical Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, explained that there is growing hope for the future of the disease.

“We are seeing a shift in understanding of dementia risk and, potentially, how to reduce it at both the individual and societal levels,” he said.

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