Living alone with a pet in later life may reduce dementia risks


A study finds having a pet can be beneficial for older consumers’ cognitive health

A study recently published in JAMA Open Network explores how living with pets in later life may help older consumers’ cognitive health

The study compared specific cognitive skills of older adults who lived with other people versus those who lived alone but owned a pet. Ultimately, having a pet proved to have some protective brain benefits. 

“Older adults living alone are at a high risk of developing dementia, and living alone is a state that is not easily changed,” the researchers wrote. “It is worth noting that compared with pet owners living with others, pet owners living alone did not show faster rates of decline in verbal memory or verbal fluency. In addition, pet ownership constitutes a simple change. 

“If randomized clinical trials confirm our findings, pet ownership may help in slowing cognitive decline and preventing dementia.” 

What are cognitive benefits?

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from 7,945 adults enrolled in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA). Participants had an average age of 66, though all were over 50, and the researchers collected data for nearly 20 years. 

In the final stages of the study, the participants reported on their living status and whether or not they had pets, and also completed cognitive tests that assessed their verbal fluency, verbal memory, and verbal cognition. Around 35% of the participants owned pets at the time of the study, and over 26% lived alone. 

Ultimately, the researchers discovered a positive link between pet ownership and cognitive function – especially for those who lived alone. 

For instance, compared to those who lived alone and didn’t own pets, those who lived alone and did have a pet scored higher on the cognitive tests. While living with other people was found to produce the greatest cognitive skills in later life, pet owners who lived alone didn’t demonstrate rapid cognitive decline. 

Slower rates of decline

The study showed that among older adults living alone, pet owners had slower rates of decline in all areas that were tested – verbal fluency, verbal memory, and verbal cognition. 

While the researchers explained that this study can’t prove definitively that owning a pet slows cognitive decline in older age, their results show a clear association between the two. Moving forward, they’re hoping more work is done in this area to better understand how pets might help older adults’ cognition. 

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