Can pet ownership slow cognitive decline in older adults?


Cognitive decline affects millions of people globally. There’s no cure for it yet, so health experts rely on modern and therapeutic interventions to slow the trajectory of the disease.

You may have heard from friends about how their new fur member has made their senior loved one with dementia happier. Owning a pet is undeniably advantageous, but is it right for you?

Consider adding a fur member to your family if your aging parent manifests symptoms of brain decline, as the latest research determined a pet can slow it down. Learn more about how your loved dog or cat can help with cognitive impairment.

Can Cognitive Decline Be Slowed?

The decline in the brain’s ability happens with age. Like how your body gradually becomes weak after you turn 65, aging has the same inevitable effect on the brain. Slowly, it will shrink. Your ability to recall or memorize information will deteriorate. However, research has proved that while this decline is not preventable, lifestyle behaviors can delay the brain’s natural aging and preserve its health. Some of  these strategies are:

  • Taking care of your physical health by doing your routine health screening
  • Managing serious health conditions like diabetes that contribute to brain decline
  • Reducing the risk of injuries
  • Getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep
  • Quitting smoking
  • Leading a physically active lifestyle

All of these tackle the physical aspect of health, which boosts cognitive ability.

Can Long-Term Pet Ownership Slow Cognitive Decline in Older Adults?

A recent study revealed owning a pet can reduce the odds of dementia by a whopping 40%. Researchers discovered how having a dog at home can decrease the incidence of cognitive impairment by 40% in a four-year-long study.

More than 11,000 seniors aged 65 to 84 years old who were cognitively and physically independent participated in the study. After four years, researchers reevaluated their overall health and found those who owned a dog had the lowest odd ratio of developing dementia at 0.6, those who had a cat had a ratio of 0.98 and people who never had a dog had a risk of 1.0.

These figures mean the probability of dementia is lower or less likely in those with dogs than in people with cats and non-pet owners. Seniors with pets leave their homes frequently to exercise. Those who walk their dogs were 2.5 times more likely to meet the required 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity for seniors. Furthermore, walking the dog offers an opportunity for socialization and interaction with neighbors.

Having a pet and engaging with it through a 20 to 30-minute morning walk helps seniors stick to a routine and stave off mental health issues.

What Are the Benefits of Owning a Dog for Seniors?

Apart from slowing cognitive decline, there are other advantages of owning a pet based on studies.

1. Reduce Stress and Anxiety

Anxiety and stress are common problems in older adults, for they have many things to worry about, like their ailments, finances, mobility and navigating their day-to-day lives. In a poll, 86% said their pets have a mostly positive impact on their mental health and 69% had reduced stress and anxiety due to the companionship of their fur-families.

Pets are an adorable member of the family. Consider adopting if you live alone or need a companion.

2. Increase Physical Activity and Reduce Loneliness and Depression

Owning pets can also end a sedentary lifestyle — which is as debilitating as smoking — and lower the risks for depression and loneliness.

A study on more than 1,500 individuals with mild-to-moderate dementia found that having a pet increased the likelihood of walking over 3 hours per week and had a better quality of life than non-pet owners.

3. Improve Your Heart Health

Dog owners are also 31% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than non-dog owners. Heart diseases are among the prevalent causes of death among Americans. If someone in your family has a high risk for heart attack or stroke, contemplate if a pet may benefit them.

4. Preserve Memory and Thinking

Forgetfulness is a prevailing sign of aging, but it can also signal early Alzheimer’s or dementia. Either way, you can combat and slow down memory loss by using memory aids and doing memory-boosting activities. Having a pet may also help preserve memory and thinking skills as you age and be a therapeutic alternative to slow cognitive decline.

Another study confirmed long-term pet ownership has positive merits to cognition. Over six years, non-pet owners manifested memory and thinking decline during an assessment compared to those who own pets.

5. Speed-up Recovery

It can help a senior family member cope with physical and mental health issues. A poll revealed more than three-quarters of participants had lower stress levels because of their pets, and nearly the same number said their pets gave them a sense of purpose. Roughly 70% stated their pets helped them cope with emotional and physical symptoms, and 46% declared their fur friends helped take their minds off of pain.

Pets are a source of comfort in older adults, helping their owners deal with stress and symptoms of their illnesses.

What Are Health Risks Associated With Owning Pets?

While owning a fur baby can impressively slow cognitive decline and impact health positively, it has drawbacks. You should carefully think whether it’s safe for you or a loved one.

1. Increased Risk of Falls and Trips

More than 32,000 fall cases resulting in fractures in seniors were related to walking leashed dogs. While your fur family looks adorable, it poses a significant risk. Your cat lounging underfoot, a dog pulling too hard on a leash or puppy toys on the floor obstructing the walkway can all cause a senior to fall and trip.

2. Time and Energy Demanding

Pet care can be energy- and time-consuming. Spending every day walking, grooming, feeding and taking the dog to a vet for vaccines can be challenging for seniors with limited mobility. If a loved one is incapable of caring for a pet, hire a caregiver to assist them.

3. Trauma Associated With Losing a Pet

Owners often regard their pets as part of the family and share many happy and sad moments with them for years. Losing them can feel traumatic — there’s also the possibility grief can turn into a mental health concern.

Owning a Pet Has Several Health Benefits

A dog or a cat can bring joy to a senior’s life. It can provide companionship and social support during difficult times and slow cognitive decline in those with high dementia risks. However, there are downsides associated with adopting a pet. It can increase the chances of falls and trips that may be fatal.

If you plan to add a fur member, list the pros and cons and evaluate if the benefits outweigh the downsides. You can also get advice from your health care provider if pet therapy is helpful to your senior loved one.

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