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Can Pets Help Prevent Dementia?

Two recent studies speak to the brain benefits of having pets


By Austin Perlmutter, MD

 


KEY POINTS:


  1. Dementia Prevention Potential: Recent studies indicate that pet ownership, particularly dogs, might slow down cognitive decline and verbal memory loss, especially for individuals living alone, suggesting pets may mitigate loneliness and dementia risk.

  2. Observational Study Insights: An observational study around 8,000 adults 50 and older demonstrated that pet ownership, particularly for those living alone, was linked to slower decline in verbal cognition and memory, hinting at a protective effect against dementia.

  3. Japanese Longitudinal Study: A longitudinal study in Japan found that dog owners had a significantly lower risk of developing disabling dementia compared to non-owners, with the benefits amplified for regular exercisers and those without social isolation.

  4. Comprehensive Health Benefits: Beyond just companionship, pets might influence health through the immune system and other pathways, offering multiple potential benefits to brain health and reducing dementia risk.


 

Dementia, in particular our risk for Alzheimer’s, is a massive issue that has the potential to affect just about everyone. Even now with the science breakthroughs of of the 21st century, we’re very limited in treatment options for dementia. Yet research has convincingly shown us that we all can take steps to prevent dementia. Now, two recent studies suggests that one such step may simply be owning a pet.

 

Having a pet can be a life-altering endeavor. My dog Brady (a miniature dachshund) is one of the most powerful sources of joy in my life. Clearly, I’m biased to believe dogs are amazing. But a recent set of studies published in JAMA Network Open and Preventive Medicine Reports suggests that there’s more to this picture when it comes to brain health.


 

The first study was an observational study conducted on almost 8,000 adults aged 50 years or older. The average age of those in the study was 66 years, and more than half of the participants were women. When tracked against cognitive decline, it was found that pet ownership was linked to slower decline in composite verbal cognition, verbal memory and verbal fluency. Of note, these benefits were only seen in people who were living alone. This suggests that one way pets may benefit us is by offsetting loneliness, which is independently linked to risk for dementia.   

 

 



 

This was an observational study conducted on about 11,000 older adults in Japan. It looked at dog and cat ownership and then compared the answers to medical charts to look for development of disabling dementia. The results showed that current dog owners had about 40% lower odds of having disabling dementia compared to past and never owners of dogs. Notably, this benefit was even higher for dog owners that were regular exercisers, and for those without social isolation. Unfortunately (sorry cat owners!) the benefits did not extend to cats.

 

Putting it together

Pet ownership is a big responsibility, but they can add incredible happiness to our lives. Beyond combating loneliness, other research suggests that pets may influence our health by way of the immune system. Since the brain has its own immune cells (called microglia), it’s possible that pet ownership may confer brain benefits through several different pathways. So don’t forget to thank your furry (or scaly?) friend, because it turns out that they may be doing your brain a great service!

 


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