Owning a pet is linked to better cognitive health in old age, study finds

A study of a national sample of American adults over 50 found that people over 65 who owned a pet for more than 5 years had higher cognitive scores and immediate word recall scores and delayed higher (better memory) compared to people of the same age who did not own a pet. There was no difference between pet owners and people who didn’t own one before age 65. The study was published in the Journal of Aging and Health.

Dementia is a group of irreversible neurological syndromes associated with cognitive decline and undesirable behavioral changes that primarily affect people of advanced age. There are approximately 5.8 million Americans currently living with dementia. Although the proportion of older people with dementia has declined in recent years, the total number is expected to increase as the baby boomer population ages.

The risk of dementia increases with age, with only 3% of people aged 70-74 having dementia, compared to 22% of people aged 85-89 and 33% of people over 90. Women are slightly more likely to have dementia. only men.

Education has been found to reduce the likelihood of developing dementia, and a number of other factors have the same effect. These factors include physical inactivity, depression, social isolation, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and chronic stress. About a third of dementia cases are attributable to modifiable causes like these and other similar lifestyle factors.

Pet ownership is an aspect of lifestyle that is known to influence many health and disease outcomes via emotional support and protection against stress. “Many older people own pets, but little is known about the potential cognitive effects of pet ownership in old age; namely, whether owning a pet could protect against cognitive decline,” said study author Tiffany J. Braley, associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan.

To assess associations between pet ownership and measures of cognitive health in older American adults, researchers analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study, “a large, prospective, diverse and representative cohort at the national scale of American adults aged 50 and over, designed to study the health, social and economic implications of the aging American population.

Organized by the University of Michigan, this study has surveyed a group of 20,000 participants every two years since 2010. Questions about pets were included in the study in 2012 and this article analyzed data from surveys conducted between 2012 and 2016.

In the survey, participants were asked about pet ownership, including “Do you currently have any pets?” and “How long have you had your (pet/pets)?”

The study assessed cognitive function with a variety of objective tests. The researchers explained that these results were used to create a total cognitive assessment score, but also to categorize participants into those with normal cognition, those with cognitive impairment and those with dementia. This study only analyzed data from participants who had normal cognition in 2010.

Results showed that 47% of participants reported owning a pet in 2012. At that time, 19% had owned a pet for 1-5 years and 28% for more than 5 years.

“We found that, among people aged 65 and older, long-term pet owners (>5 years) demonstrated better cognitive performance than those who owned pets for shorter periods of time. and those who had none at all,” said the study’s author. Jennifer W. Applebaum, PhD student at the University of Florida. “We conclude that long-term pet ownership may have protective effects against cognitive decline, but further research is needed to confirm the findings and to understand how and why this may be the case.”

The association between pet ownership and cognitive performance was strongest for verbal memory. “Sustained pet ownership was associated with higher immediate and delayed word recall scores,” the researchers wrote.

However, no difference in cognitive scores was found between these groups when participants younger than 65 were considered. The study also found that those who owned a pet for longer than five years had indicators of greater physical activity, lower body mass index and lower incidence of diabetes. and hypertension compared to participants who owned a pet for a shorter period or did not. .

“Sustained pet ownership may ameliorate cognitive disparities in older adults,” the researchers wrote.

“I was surprised that the results held up to rigorous statistical checks,” Applebaum noted. “We adjusted the statistical models for sociodemographic factors, which allowed us to account, at least in part, for the effects of known health disparities (eg, race, socioeconomic status). Often, any positive health effects of pet ownership disappear in statistical models when accounting for health disparities, likely because the health effects of social inequalities are so profound.

The study contributes to our knowledge about older pet owners. However, it must be taken into account that it does not allow conclusions to be drawn from cause and effect. In particular, it is possible that the differences observed come from the fact that people in a better mental and cognitive state are better able to take care of a pet and therefore able to keep one and not necessarily that the possession of one. an animal reduces the rate of cognitive decline.

“Although the longitudinal associations in our study are compelling, the study design did not allow us to demonstrate a causal relationship,” Braley explained. “Additional prospective work that includes information on the strength of the human-animal bond and its effect on cognitive trajectories, and incorporates the study of biological mechanisms that might mediate this relationship, is still needed.”

The study, “The Impact of Enduring Pet Ownership on Cognitive Health: A Population-Based Study,” was authored by Jennifer W. Applebaum, Monica M. Shieu, Shelby E. McDonald, Galit Levi Dunietz and Tiffany J. Braley.

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