Science Says Owning a Pet Can Slow Mental Decline in Older Adults

The cognitive health benefits of owning a pet were most notable for Black pet owners, people with a college eduction, and men.

An elderly woman and her dog
Photo: LAW Ho Ming / Getty Images

If you have a pet, you know how comforting a purring nudge or a lick on the face can be after a bad day. While it's no secret that our furry friends make great companions, are they also the key to maintaining healthy cognitive function as we age? According to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, having an animal in your life for more than five years can slow mental decline in older adults. "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."

To obtain their findings, the team studied over 1,300 people with an average age of 65. Of the participants, 53 percent owned pets, and 32 percent were long-term pet owners, meaning they owned an animal for five years or more. The researchers used data from multiple cognitive tests given to people as part of the Health and Retirement Study. The team used those tests to develop a composite cognitive score for each person. The score included common tests of subtraction, numeric counting and word recall. Researchers used those scores to estimate the associations between years of pet ownership and cognitive function.

They found that over a period of six years, cognitive scores decreased at a slower rate in people that owned pets. According to the results, pet owners had a cognitive composite score that was 1.2 points higher on average at six years compared to people that didn't own a pet. They also discovered that these benefits were most notable for Black pet owners, people with a college eduction, and men. "

As stress can negatively affect cognitive function, the potential stress-buffering effects of pet ownership could provide a plausible reason for our findings," says Braley. "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."

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