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Do pets have a positive effect on your brain health? Study shows long-term pet ownership linked to slower decline in cognition over time

Owning a companion animal, such as a dog or cat, especially for five years or more, may be linked to slower cognitive decline in older adults, according to a preliminary study published today, February 23, 2022

“Previous studies have suggested that human-animal bonding may have beneficial health effects, 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 Fellow of the American Academy. of Neurology. “Our results suggest that pet ownership may also protect against cognitive decline.”

The study looked at cognitive data from 1,369 elderly people 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 owned pets for five years or more. Of the study participants, 88% were white, 7% were black, 2% were Hispanic, and 3% were of another ethnicity or race.

The researchers used data from the Health and Retirement Study, a large study of Medicare beneficiaries. In this study, people were given several cognitive tests. The researchers used these cognitive tests to develop a composite cognitive score for each person, ranging from zero to 27. The composite score included common tests of subtraction, number counting and word recall. The researchers then used the participants’ composite cognitive scores and estimated associations between years of pet ownership and cognitive function.

Over six years, cognitive scores declined at a slower rate among pet owners. This difference was strongest among long-term pet owners. Controlling for other factors known to affect cognitive function, the study showed that long-term pet owners had, on average, a composite cognitive score 1.2 points higher at six years than non-pets. – pet owners. The researchers also found that the cognitive benefits associated with prolonged pet ownership were greater for black adults, college-educated adults, and men. Braley says more research is needed to further explore possible reasons for these associations.

“As stress can negatively affect cognitive function, the potential stress-dampening effects of pet ownership could provide a plausible rationale for our findings,” Braley said. “A pet may also increase physical activity, which could benefit cognitive health. That said, further research is needed to confirm our findings and identify the mechanisms underlying this association.”

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

The study will be presented at the 74th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology to be held in person in Seattle, April 2-7, 2022 and virtually, April 24-26, 2022.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Institute on Aging.

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Material provided by American Academy of Neurology. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.