Article image

Having a pet can slow or prevent cognitive decline and dementia

Recent studies have uncovered intriguing links between pet ownership and cognitive health in older adults, particularly those living alone. This research offers a clearer and more concise exploration of how our furry friends play a role in slowing cognitive decline.

The ELSA study

A comprehensive investigation using data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) has revealed that for older adults living solo, owning a pet is associated with a slower decline in various cognitive functions.

Specifically, these individuals showed lesser rates of decline in verbal memory, verbal fluency, and overall verbal cognition compared to their counterparts who live with others.

Interestingly, pet ownership seemed to neutralize the negative impact of living alone on these cognitive aspects.

Earlier studies on pets and cognitive decline

These findings are not isolated. Earlier cross-sectional studies echo similar benefits, linking pet ownership to better verbal memory and executive function.

Even when different methods were used to assess cognitive abilities, such as serial sevens subtraction or clock-drawing tests, the positive association with pet ownership remained consistent.

In a more focused study involving 32 participants, researchers found that pet owners experienced slower deterioration in verbal memory and executive function over a decade.

This aligns with the ELSA study results, despite potential limitations like recall bias and uncertain temporal relationships in the smaller study.

Contrasting views and study design

Not all research aligns perfectly. Some previous cross-sectional studies did not find a significant link between pet ownership and cognitive functions like verbal memory or executive function.

This discrepancy could be attributed to differences in study designs (longitudinal vs. cross-sectional) and the cognitive tests used.

Further analysis highlights that the protective role of pets is more pronounced in older adults living alone. This group is particularly vulnerable to dementia, and pet ownership seems to offer a buffer against the cognitive decline typically associated with living solo.

Broader cognitive functions

While the focus has been on verbal memory and executive function, cognitive health is multi-dimensional. Other studies have suggested that pets might also positively influence processing speed and orientation.

Therefore, a more comprehensive approach is needed to fully understand the impact of pet ownership on overall cognitive health.

The study, while insightful, has its limitations. It primarily assessed only two dimensions of cognitive function.

Additionally, the assumption of constant pet ownership from a single wave of data collection, the lack of diversity in the study population, and potential unmeasured confounding factors highlight the need for further research. This includes randomized clinical trials to establish a causal relationship.

Using pets to mitigate cognitive decline

In summary, found that pet ownership slowed down the decline in verbal memory, verbal fluency, and overall verbal cognition in older adults living alone. However, this association did not extend to those living with others.

Additionally, owning a pet entirely counteracted the negative effects of living alone on verbal memory, verbal fluency, and comprehensive verbal cognition.

These results indicate that pet ownership could benefit the verbal memory and verbal fluency of older adults living by themselves.

While further studies are necessary to confirm these findings, the prospect of incorporating pets into public health policies for cognitive health is an exciting and heartwarming possibility.

Understanding cognitive decline

As discussed above, cognitive decline, a condition often associated with aging, involves the gradual deterioration of cognitive functions such as memory, reasoning, and decision-making.

While commonly linked to aging, it can also result from various medical conditions, lifestyle factors, or genetic predispositions.

Cognitive decline and aging

The first aspect of cognitive decline is its natural association with aging. As people age, changes in the brain occur, including neuron loss and decreased neurotransmitter levels.

This process, while normal, can impact mental acuity and memory. However, not all older people experience significant cognitive decline, indicating that genetics and lifestyle play crucial roles.

Medical conditions and cognitive decline

Medical conditions significantly contribute to cognitive decline. Diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s directly affect brain function, leading to pronounced cognitive impairments.

Vascular issues, like stroke, can also cause damage to brain regions responsible for cognitive abilities. Furthermore, chronic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension are linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline, emphasizing the importance of managing these conditions.

Lifestyle factors influencing cognitive health

Lifestyle factors are equally important in the context of cognitive decline. Regular physical exercise, a balanced diet rich in antioxidants, and mental stimulation through activities like reading or puzzles can help maintain cognitive functions.

Social engagement and avoiding harmful habits like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption also play a significant role in preserving cognitive health. Also, as discussed earlier in this article, owning a pet can play a big role in slowing cognitive decline.

Interventions and preventive measures

Finally, recent studies suggest that cognitive decline can be mitigated or delayed through various interventions. Cognitive training exercises, medication, and therapy can help individuals maintain cognitive function.

Early detection and intervention are crucial, making regular health check-ups and cognitive assessments important, especially for those at higher risk.

In summary, cognitive decline is a multifaceted issue influenced by age, medical conditions, genetics, and lifestyle. Understanding these factors can help in developing strategies to prevent or slow down cognitive deterioration, emphasizing the importance of a healthy lifestyle, regular medical check-ups, and cognitive exercises.

The full study was published in the journal JAMA Network Open.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day