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Pets can improve cognitive function, according to a new study

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Over the years, pets have become an integral part of families around the world. As human populations continue to grow, pet populations are also increasing. The presence of a pet has many proven benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart attack and heart disease, lowering blood pressure levels, lower stress levels and, of course, hours spent with a real friend. A new study that we will review found out that pet ownership can slow memory loss and other types of cognitive decline.

Having a pet is fun (and healthy)

Do you have a dog? Do you love him? Well, if you have a cat things look a little different, but there's a chance they love you too - and that's great for everyone! The unconditional love that members of the canine genus give us is like no other and also brings us great health benefits in the long run. Some of these benefits are reduced stress levels and risk of high blood pressure, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, loneliness and social exclusion. 

Did you know that dog therapy is used to help patients who are dealing with dementia or Alzheimer's? The presence of dogs has been found to help reduce the effects of dementia, for example – loneliness, irritability, depression and anxiety. Some studies have even found that dogs are able to "smell" Alzheimer's disease in urine samples.  [ref. 1] 

Contact with a cat can also contribute to improving the treatment of many diseases, including depression (anxiety and fear), arthritis, Alzheimer's disease, AIDS, ADHD, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cardiovascular disease, progressive muscle atrophy, sclerosis, vision loss and hearing, mental illness, osteoporosis and autism.  [Ref. 2] 

A new study has found that pet ownership is particularly useful in another extremely important aspect - working verbal memory.

Pets' contribution to cognitive health

"To the best of our knowledge, our study is the first to look at the effect of the duration of pet ownership on cognitive health," said lead author Jennifer Applebaum, a doctoral student in sociology and a doctoral student at the National Institute of Health at the University of Florida. [Ref. 2] 

The study analyzed cognitive data on more than 1,300 adults who participated in the so-called "Health and Retirement Study," a nationally representative study tracking the lives of Americans 50 and older. It is also interesting that it is not only cats and dogs that can stimulate brain health. The people involved in the study also looked after rabbits, hamsters, birds, fish and reptiles, although dogs were most prevalent as a group, followed by cats.

One of the main findings of the study was that owning pets for five years or more resulted in the greatest benefit, slowing cognitive decline by 1.2 points over the six-year study period compared to the rate of decline in non-pet people, said clinical neuroimmunologist Dr. Tiffany Brayley, Associate Professor of Neurology at the University of Michigan. These findings provide early evidence to suggest that long-term pet ownership may protect against cognitive decline, Dr. Brayley adds.

The scientific work will be presented in April 2022 at the 74th annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology.

Any participant with cognitive decline at the beginning of the study was excluded from the analysis. In the final sample, over 53% own pets. Pet owners tend to have higher socioeconomic status, which can also be the cause of the benefits. Experts believe that people on higher incomes are more likely to visit doctors and take care of their health, and this may also apply to their pets.

Another conclusion of the study that stands out: any brain stimulation associated with owning pets for five years is more noticeable in older people of color, especialli Black, adults with higher education and men. However, more studies are needed to include more men, as previous studies have mainly been done among women.

Why have pets for more than five years has the most positive impact? The study, which can only show a link, not a direct cause and effect between pet ownership and cognition, fails to answer this question.

However, previous studies have also identified associations between interactions with companion animals and physiological measures to reduce stress, including reducing cortisol levels and blood pressure, which in the long term can have an impact on cognitive health. There can also be a complex of other brain benefits resulting from owning pets, such as social communication and a sense of duty and some purpose.

  1. Having a pet is fun (and healthy)
  2. Pets' contribution to cognitive health


The researchers found that older people over 50 or older who had any type of pet for more than five years showed a slower cognitive decline in verbal memory compared to people who did not have pets. The presence of a pet or multiple pets combines many basic components of a healthy lifestyle for the brain. These include increased activity - games and walks, cognitive engagement, socialization, which only part of the activity influencing key modifiable risk factors for cognitive decline and dementia in Alzheimer's disease.


  1. Sniffing Out Alzheimer’s: Olfaction as a Diagnostic and Research Tool – Yale Scientific Magazine
  2. Feline-assisted therapy: Integrating contact with cats into treatment plans
  3. Long-term pet ownership may help older adults retain cognitive skills

The author

Bettina Tsvetkova is a Bachelor of Marketing and Master of Entrepreneurship, a fan of healthy eating, power sports and cycling. Author of over 1500 scientifically based articles, product texts and promotional materials on a healthy topic for Bulgarian and foreign websites.


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