By Brett Arendts
If you’re over 50, live alone, and want to keep your brain young for as long as possible, get a pet. That’s the biggest takeaway from a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Having just one pet made a significant difference in the rate of cognitive decline among older adults living alone, a team of eight researchers in clinical epidemiology and statistics found after following nearly 8,000 cases of older adults. What’s even more remarkable is that the beneficial effect of owning a pet was only apparent over a nine-year period — which gives you an idea of how much of an effect it can have over 20 years or more.
And cognitive decline isn’t just a bad thing on its own, it’s often a precursor to full-blown dementia.
“Pet association was associated with a slower rate of decline in composite verbal perception, verbal memory and verbal fluency among individuals living alone,” said Dr. Seung Lu from the School of Public Health at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou and co-authors. This happened when they crunched numbers from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, a major health research project in the UK, write colleagues in China.
The average age of study participants was 66 years, and more than half were women. They were interviewed every two years. The study followed them from 2010-2011 to 2018-2019.
Those who lived alone and had no pets did worse in terms of cognitive decline on several measures. But those who lived alone and had pets as well as those who lived with other people.
This is not an isolated study either.
A scientific paper published two years ago in the Journal of Aging and Health found that among a sample of people over the age of 65, those who had a pet for at least five years ” compared to owners, demonstrated higher composite cognitive scores,” while “sustained pet ownership was associated with higher immediate and delayed word recall scores.”
A 2020 study found that among a group of people over 50, those who either owned pets, or were in regular contact with pets, were “significantly more likely than those who showed higher cognitive status than those who did not own pets or had regular contact with pets. age.”
Another 2016 study found “significant positive associations between pet attachment and executive function” among homebound older adults, meaning that having a pet wasn’t enough — you had to. Got to be emotionally attached.
Perhaps most surprisingly, a study of nearly 100 adults of all ages found that “owning a pet can shorten brain life by up to 15 years.” In the sample, the authors found that “pet ownership was associated with higher levels of cognition and larger brain structures, and these effects were greatest among dog owners.” The researchers found that the benefits could be found in “improved processing speed, attention span and episodic memory for stories” and other measures of mental health.
All of these studies have obvious and unavoidable limitations, which is that the authors generally use cautious language, such as that pet ownership is “associated” with better cognitive scores rather than causing them. (Better cognitive scores could, in theory, account for pet ownership.) Many involve small samples of only a hundred or a few hundred people. And that’s all you can prove using real-world studies, where researchers have to rely on self-reporting by subjects.
Nevertheless, the growing number of studies pointing in the same direction should be cause for hope. This is especially true as we face epidemics related to aging, loneliness and dementia.
The number of Americans living alone has increased by nearly half over the past 50 years. Today it is about 30 percent. The number of people with dementia worldwide is expected to triple over the next 25 years. Scientists still know little about what causes it, and effective treatments are rare, very expensive, and of limited use.
– Brett Arendts
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