A study suggests that senior individuals who live alone may benefit from owning pets as a way to slow cognitive decline

A study released this week suggests that senior citizens who live alone may benefit from having a pet in order to slow the rate of cognitive decline.

According to a large cohort study conducted in the United Kingdom on adults 50 years of age and older, those who owned pets showed less declines in verbal fluency and verbal memory than those who lived alone without a pet. The American Medical Association’s peer-reviewed journal JAMA Network Open published research findings from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China.

Dr. Thomas Wisniewski, the director of NYU Langone Health’s Division of Cognitive Neurology in New York, said the study builds on the body of research showing reducing stress, isolation, and loneliness can lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias. It does not prove pet ownership causes the slower declines; rather, it is linked to them. Dementia presently has no recognized treatment.

According to Wisniewski, who was not involved in the study, “generally, many studies have shown that being isolated is bad for one’s cognition and increases the probability for developing dementia.”

Like the U.S., the United Kingdom’s senior population is predicted to rise and life expectancy to rise, raising questions about the demands on public health as their cognitive abilities deteriorate. According to the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Association, more than one in ten Americans 65 years of age and older currently suffer from Alzheimer’s, the most prevalent type of dementia. More than 6 million Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are thought to have Alzheimer’s disease, and by 2060, that figure is predicted to rise to 14 million.

The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing included 7,945 waves of participants between 2010–11 and 2018–19, with an average age of 66. This data was used in the study. Every year, the subjects—of which approximately 56% were female—were assessed on their composite verbal cognition, verbal memory, and verbal fluency. It was found that living alone had a substantial impact on all cognitive processes examined. Less than 27% of respondents were single and about 35% of respondents had pets.

In the aging study, participants were asked to recall 10 unrelated words both immediately and later to test their verbal memory. To measure verbal fluency, participants were asked to list as many animal names as they could in one minute. The results indicated that individuals who lived alone and had pets experienced a slower rate of decline in verbal memory and verbal fluency than those who did not.

More research, according to the researchers, is required to fully elaborate on the findings.

Because the study only examined two facets of cognitive function, the authors noted some limitations. Furthermore, the study was observational only, which refutes causation. It should be noted that the results cannot be applied to other racial or ethnic groups because almost all of the participants were White. Dementia is twice as common in Black people than in White people.

Further research is required, according to NYU Langone’s Wisniewski, on various demographics and over longer time periods. He also mentioned that the average age of the study’s participants, 66, is on the younger side of when cognitive declines start to manifest. According to the CDC, the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms, for instance, may occur after age 60, with the likelihood rising with age.

The slowing declines might be caused by factors other than merely having a pet. According to Wisniewski, owning a pet frequently necessitates exercise or socializing with other pet owners.

There are numerous avoidable environmental factors linked to cognitive decline. This can involve making lifestyle adjustments to support cognitive function, such as improving diet, getting more exercise, and minimizing social isolation.

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