There is no shortage of claims about how pets are good for your health. Cuddling, petting and simply spending time with them may help with anything from high blood pressure to mental health. But what about the health of your brain? Could owning a pet help to slow down the natural aging process of the grey matter?
A new study has revealed that people who own a pet for a long period of time, have a slower cognitive decline than those who do not.
Cognitive health is all about how well you can think and remember things and how well you can learn. It is generally accepted that this declines as we age. Even though it is just one aspect of brain health, it is vital for us to go about our everyday lives. We already know that there are a number of environmental and lifestyle factors that increase the risk of cognitive decline. These include a lack of physical activity, a poor diet, smoking, and drinking too much alcohol.
Now, scientists based at the University of Michigan have completed a study that showed that owning a pet for five or more years resulted in a decreased deterioration of the brain in subjects around 65 years of age. This groundbreaking research will be debated this April at the American Academy of Neurology’s 74th Annual Meeting in Seattle.
The scientists came to this conclusion by comparing the brain health of three groups of subjects. In the first group were ‘long term’ pet owners which meant that they had owned a pet for at least five years. The other group were simply ‘pet owners’ and the final group did not own a pet. In total there were 1,300 participants with an average age of 65 years.
The subjects were studied over a six-year period during which they had their cognitive function assessed using tests such as word recall tests and subtraction. The tests were collated to give each participant a single score ranging from 0 to 27.
It would be expected for cognitive scores to decrease over the six-year period but the researchers found that the rate of decline on non-pet owners was more rapid. Also, the long-term pet owners had the slowest decline of all and had a score of 1.2 points on average above non-pet owners. The ‘protective’ effect was particularly marked in Black participants, in men, and in subjects that had a college education.
So, how can this be explained? We already know that high blood pressure, depression, a lack of physical exercise, and social isolation contribute to cognitive decline. It could be that owners of dogs, in particular, take more exercise and get out and meet people more.
This is supported by comments made by the author of the study Dr. Tiffany Braley of the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She says
“Prior studies have suggested that the human-animal bond may have health benefits like decreasing blood pressure and stress and our results suggest pet ownership may also be protective against cognitive decline.”
Braley goes on to say that “Stress can negatively affect cognitive function which means lower stress levels could help slow cognitive decline.” She also calls for more research to confirm the results.