Having a dog or cat in later life could reduce the risk of dementia, a new study suggests

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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Dog and cat ownership may slow down cognitive decline in older people living alone.

Living alone – which is the case for around a third of all Americans – is linked with a greater risk of dementia.

But a study of almost 8,000 people suggests having a pet could reduce that risk, by making people less lonely.

Researchers looked at people living in England aged over 50 who were asked if they lived with a pet and given tests on their memory for words and verbal fluency.

Engaging with a pet regularly can reduce the stress, anxiety and confusion that often comes alongside living alone, and can increase the risk of dementia

It is normal for verbal memory and fluency to get worse as we get older, but this decline was slower in people living alone who have pets.

Dr Yanzhi Li, who led the study from Sun Yat-sen University in China, said: ‘The companionship provided by pets might reduce loneliness and increase wellbeing, while taking dogs for walks might help to meet other people, through providing a topic of conversation.

‘Our results showed that pet owners were less likely to be socially isolated than non-pet owners, which is good for the brain and reduces the rate of cognitive decline.

‘Dog owners may also get more exercise from going for walks and sleep better after being tired out by these walks, which could help with cognitive function.

‘But any type of pet is calming, relaxing and can relieve stress and anxiety, while looking after them and feeding them can provide a sense of meaning and purpose for their owners, which is very important for brain health.’

While dog owners tend to get more exercise, which can also boost brain health in old age, any type of pet could 'completely offset' the faster rate of cognitive decline that is seen in people who live alone

While dog owners tend to get more exercise, which can also boost brain health in old age, any type of pet could ‘completely offset’ the faster rate of cognitive decline that is seen in people who live alone

Among the 7,945 older people looked at in the study, more than a third owned pets and almost 27 percent lived alone.

Their verbal memory was tested by giving them a list of words and asking them to remember them, immediately and after a delay, while verbal fluency was measured by asking people to list as many animal names as they could within one minute.

For people who did not live with anyone else, those with pets had a slower rate of decline in their language skills even after taking into account factors which could affect their brain health like age, some medical conditions and exercise levels.

Indeed, the rate of decline was roughly the same in pet owners living alone as people with pets who lived with a partner or other people.

It means simply having a pet could ‘completely offset’ the faster rate of decline in verbal memory and fluency seen in people who live alone, who typically have fewer daily conversations and mental stimulation.

The findings follow previous evidence that having a pet makes people feel less isolated, quite apart from the other health benefits of taking a dog out for a walk every day.

Previous studies have suggested that people with pets are mentally quicker and have better executive function – which helps with planning and problem-solving.

But the evidence is mixed, and more tests are needed to show that having a pet slows down cognitive decline generally, as the current study only tested people for their abilities with language.

Although the slower decline in thinking skills seen in pet owners is likely to mean a reduced risk of dementia, more evidence is needed for this too.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, looked at people asked about pet ownership and living arrangements and given memory and thinking tests as part of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.

It did not find pet ownership slowed the rate of cognitive decline in people who lived with others, but only those who lived alone.

But for these people, the authors say living with an animal is a ‘simple change’ which could be helpful.

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