The brain perks of pet ownership

According to the American Pet Product Association (APPA), 70 percent of Americans now own at least one pet. And our furry, finned, feathered and scaled friends do wonders for our well-being.

Their health benefits go well beyond those provided by service animals like assistance dogs. The affection and companionship provided by your pet can help lower blood pressure, slow down heart rate and reduce depression and stress. And some pets make it much easier for you to get the daily exercise you need.

Pets are especially good for seniors who live alone or who are making the transition to a retirement community or nursing home.

Pets can help prevent loneliness and depression and keep their owners entertained. Having a dog that needs to be walked can help seniors stay active and engaged with others in their community. Even playing indoors with a smaller animal like a cat or bird can help seniors get gentle exercise.

Recently, researchers uncovered another point that makes pet ownership especially attractive for older adults…

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The impact of long-term pet ownership on the brain

Results of a preliminary study show long-term ownership of a pet like a dog or cat could help slow cognitive decline in older adults. The study will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 74th Annual Meeting in April 2022.

“Prior studies have suggested that the human-animal bond may have health benefits like decreasing blood pressure and stress,” says study author Dr. Tiffany Braley of the University of Michigan Medical Center. “Our results suggest pet ownership may also be protective against cognitive decline.”

The study looked at cognitive data from the Health and Retirement Study of Medicare beneficiaries. A total of 53 percent of the 1,369 older adults in the study owned pets, and 32 percent owned pets for five years or more. All participants had an average age of 65 and normal cognitive skills at the start of the study.

The researchers examined the results of multiple cognitive tests involving subtraction, numeric counting and word recall administered during the Health and Retirement Study. Then, they used the results to develop a composite cognitive score for each participant, ranging from zero to 27. The composite scores were used to estimate the associations between years of pet ownership and cognitive function.

According to the data, cognitive scores decreased at a slower rate in pet owners over a six-year period. And the difference was strongest among long-term pet owners.

When including other factors known to impact cognitive function, the study showed that long-term pet owners, on average, had a cognitive composite score that was 1.2 points higher at the six-year mark than non-pet owners. The cognitive benefits connected with lengthy pet ownership were stronger for Black adults, college-educated adults and men.

Braley cautions that more research is needed to confirm the results and identify underlying mechanisms for this association.

“As stress can negatively affect cognitive function, the potential stress-buffering effects of pet ownership could provide a plausible reason for our findings,” she says. “A companion animal can also increase physical activity, which could benefit cognitive health.”

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Can you be too old to have a pet?

The benefits of pet ownership for seniors are clear. In a University of Michigan survey of pet owners between the ages of 50 and 80, the majority reported their pets help them…

  • Enjoy life (88 percent)
  • Feel loved (86 percent)
  • Reduce stress (79 percent)
  • Have a sense of purpose (73 percent)
  • Connect with other people (65 percent)
  • Stay physically active (64 percent overall; 78 percent for dog owners)
  • Stick to a routine (62 percent)

You may wonder if an older senior or a senior with physical limitations should skip having a pet. One thing to remember is that, according to the Michigan survey, 72 percent of pet owners who lived alone reported their pets help them cope with their physical or emotional symptoms. And 46 percent of pet owners in fair or poor physical health said their pets help take their mind off their pain.

Still, if you’re a senior considering pet adoption, or you’re thinking of getting a pet for an elderly family member, there are a few things to bear in mind.

Make sure you or your loved one is capable of properly caring for the pet. For instance, if you’re weak and prone to falling, you may want to avoid adopting a large or energetic dog that will need to be walked. And if you have asthma, you may want to check for a cat or dog allergy before bringing one home.

Does the pet match your personality (or that of your family member)? If you’re someone who loves to stay active, having a younger dog or cat that needs a lot of play and exercise would be a good fit. But if you prefer shorter walks and long periods of sitting quietly with a good book or crossword puzzle, you may want to adopt an older, calmer pet that doesn’t need as much stimulation.

Editor’s note: While you’re doing all the right things to protect your brain as you age, make sure you don’t make the mistake 38 million Americans do every day — by taking a drug that robs them of an essential brain nutrient! Click here to discover the truth about the Cholesterol Super-Brain!


Do Pets Have A Positive Effect On Your Brain Health? — American Academy of Neurology

American Pet Products Association Releases Newest Edition of National Pet Owners Survey — American Pet Products Association

Exercise, good for you and your pet! — Colorado State University

The Complete Guide to Pet Ownership for Seniors — A Place for Mom

How Pets Contribute to Healthy Aging — University of Michigan

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.