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Do pets have a positive effect on brain health?

Owning a pet, such as a dog or cat, especially for five years or more, may be associated with slower cognitive decline in older adults, according to a preliminary study.

"Previous studies have suggested that the human-animal bond may have health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and stress," said study author Tiffany Braley, MD, MS, of the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. “Our results suggest that pet ownership may also be protective against cognitive decline.”

The study looked at cognitive data from 1,369 older adults with an average age of 65 who had normal cognitive abilities at the start of the study. A total of 53% owned pets and 32% were long-term pet owners, defined as those who had pets for five years or more. Of the study participants, 88% were white, 7% black, 2% Hispanic, and 3% were of other ethnicity or race.

Researchers used data from the Health and Retirement Study, a large survey of Medicare beneficiaries. In that study, people were given multiple cognitive tests. Researchers used those cognitive tests to develop a composite cognitive score for each person, ranging from zero to 27. The composite score included general tests for subtraction, numerical counting and word recall. Researchers then used the participants' composite cognitive scores and estimated the associations between years of pet ownership and cognitive function.

Cognitive scores in pet owners declined more slowly over six years. This difference was strongest in long-term pet owners. Taking into account other factors known to influence cognitive function, the study showed that long-term pet owners had, on average, a cognitive composite score that was 1.2 points higher after six years compared to non-pet owners. pets. The researchers also found that the cognitive benefits associated with longer pet ownership were stronger for black adults, higher educated adults and men. Braley says more research is needed to further explore the possible reasons for these associations.

"Since stress can negatively affect cognitive function, the potential stress-buffering effects of pet ownership could be a plausible reason for our findings," Braley said. “A companion animal can also increase physical activity, which could benefit cognitive health. That said, more research is needed to confirm our results and identify underlying mechanisms for this association.”

A limitation of the study was that duration of pet ownership was only assessed at one time point, so information on ongoing pet ownership was not available.