Ask the Doctors: Owning a companion animal helps with cognition in older adults

The pet owners in a recent study tended to have lower body-fat percentages, better blood pressure and a lower incidence of diabetes than those without pets.

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A wealth of research continues to find that living with a companion animal is associated with a wide range of health benefits.

A wealth of research continues to find that living with a companion animal is associated with a wide range of health benefits.

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Dear Doctors: I have shared my home with pets my whole life. I am now a 76-year-old widow, and my menagerie is down to two small dogs. I just saw on the news that pets keep you mentally sharp. Is that true?

Answer: A wealth of research has found that living with a companion animal is associated with a wide range of health benefits, including enhancing the pet owner’s physical, emotional and mental health and generally improving their quality of life.

A recent study focused on pet ownership among older adults. The results, published last summer in the Journal of Aging and Health, suggest that growing older while living with a companion animal can play a role in preserving cognitive function. The researchers used data gathered by the Health and Retirement Study, an ongoing project involving about 20,000 adults in the United States, all 50 or older. The researchers regularly interview the participants and use tests and other diagnostic tools to amass data about aging.

They focused on 1,369 adults who did not have any existing cognitive problems. Participants were divided into those without a pet, those whose pet had been with them fewer than five years and those with a pet for five years or more.

A surprising connection to pet ownership emerged.

Those who lived with a pet performed better on tests that measured both long- and short-term memory than did people of the same age but who did not live with a pet. This beneficial effect was even more pronounced in people whose pets had been with them five or more years.

This protective effect was seen only in those 65 or older. That’s the age at which it becomes more likely for the symptoms of cognitive decline or dementia to begin to manifest.

The researchers suspect several factors could be at play. The pet owners in the study tended to have lower body-fat percentages, better blood pressure and a lower incidence of diabetes than the others. This pointed to greater levels of physical activity, long linked to improved cognitive health. The group with pets also reported lower levels of stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness, all which adversely affect mental function.

Dr. Eve Glazier and Dr. Elizabeth Ko are internists at UCLA Health.

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