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How Pets May Reduce Dementia Risks Later in Life

A new study explores brain health of older adults living alone.

Key points

  • Pet ownership may be associated with slower cognitive decline among older adults living alone.
  • Owning a pet provides companionship and boosts brain health for older adults.
  • Pet ownership offers a holistic approach to reducing risks of dementia.
Source: Provisionshots/Pexels

Owning a pet helps reduce dementia risks later in life, a new study reveals. Not only do pets provide companionship and promote physical activity, but they also offer mental and emotional stimulation that can help maintain brain health.

The study found that pet ownership was associated with slower rates of decline in verbal memory, verbal fluency, and composite verbal cognition among older adults living alone, but not among those living with others. Pet ownership completely offset the declining rates of verbal memory, verbal fluency, and composite verbal cognition associated with living alone. The findings provide insights for public health policies aimed at slowing cognitive decline in older adults living alone.

Dementia is a disease that affects memory, thinking, and the ability to perform daily activities. It worsens over time and mainly affects older people. Dementia is the seventh leading cause of death and one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people globally. GBD 2019 Dementia Forecasting Collaborators estimate that the number of people with dementia worldwide will increase from 57 million in 2019 to 153 million in 2050.

Six Benefits to Pet Ownership for Older Adults

  1. Promotes Physical Activity:
    Walking a dog or playing with pets can help seniors maintain an active lifestyle, increasing blood flow to the brain and improving cardiovascular health. Research links regular physical activity to a lower risk of developing dementia, as it enhances neural connectivity and stimulates the release of neurochemicals that support brain cell growth.
  2. Enhances Emotional Well-Being:
    The presence of pets can promote a sense of comfort and security, especially during times of hardship or loneliness. Interacting with pets increases the production of hormones leading to improvement in mood and mental well-being.
  3. Reduces Stress and Anxiety:
    Pets have a unique ability to provide humans with emotional support and help alleviate their stress and anxiety. Spending time with a pet has been shown to increase the production of oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and feelings of well-being. The hormonal boost can reduce stress levels and anxiety, which are known risk factors for the development of cognitive decline and dementia.
  4. Engages the Mind:
    Interacting with pets prompts mental engagement and cognitive stimulation. Caring for a pet requires various tasks, such as feeding, grooming, and training, which can help maintain cognitive function. The activities foster mental flexibility, problem-solving skills, and memory.
  5. Creates Social Connections:
    Pets have long been recognized to help with loneliness in older adults. Pets can be a catalyst for social connections, encouraging seniors to engage with others. Walking a dog or visiting pet-friendly parks and events facilitates social interactions with fellow pet owners, leading to increased socialization and reduced feelings of isolation. Regular social engagement plays a vital role in reducing dementia risks, as it keeps the brain active and contributes to overall cognitive well-being.
  6. Fosters a Sense of Purpose:
    Pets offer a sense of purpose and responsibility to their owners. When caring for a pet, seniors have a reason to wake up in the morning, a routine to follow, and someone who depends on them. This sense of purpose and routine helps maintain mental agility and contributes to overall well-being. Being responsible for a living being can provide a sense of fulfillment, which positively impacts cognitive health.

While there is no guaranteed way to prevent dementia, incorporating a pet into your life can offer numerous benefits that go beyond companionship. The physical activity, emotional connection, reduced stress, cognitive stimulation, social connections, and sense of purpose that come with owning a pet can help reduce the risks of cognitive decline and enhance brain health.


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