Pet Ownership May Offset Cognitive Decline in Older People

2 min read

Dec. 27, 2023 – For older people who live alone, owning a pet may slow the process of cognitive decline, a new study suggests.

The findings were published Tuesday in JAMA Network Open. Researchers looked at health and pet ownership information from a database of 7,945 people people living in the United Kingdom from 2010 to 2019. All of the people in the study were at least 50 years old, and the average age of participants was 66.

Cognitive decline refers to problems with memory and thinking that naturally occur as people age. An estimated 10% to 20% of people over age 65 may have a more advanced form of decline called mild cognitive impairment, which can be a precursor to dementia.

This latest study evaluated the impact of living with a pet. An increasing number of older people are living alone, the authors noted, which has been linked to an increased risk of dementia.

To test a cognitive function called verbal memory, study participants were asked to recall 10 unrelated words. And to test a function called verbal fluency, participants were asked to name as many animals as they could within 1 minute. The researchers compared changes in test performance over time and also compared performance based on whether people lived alone, with other people, or with other people and with pets.

People who lived alone with pets had slower rates of cognitive decline based on those test results when compared to people who lived entirely alone. But there were no differences between people living alone with pets compared to people living with others. Also, there were no differences between pet owners who also lived with other people compared to pet owners who lived alone.

The authors noted that their study was limited because they couldn’t evaluate additional cognitive areas such as executive function, reasoning, and attention. Also, the data they used only asked about pet ownership during a single point in time, not regularly during the 9-year period they analyzed health data. The study design also meant factors other than pet ownership may have impacted people’s cognitive health.