Owning a pet could help slow cognitive decline in older adults living alone, according to a study published this week.
A large cohort study of adults aged 50 and over living in the UK showed that pet owners had less verbal memory and decreased verbal fluency compared to people living alone without a pet of company. The findings from researchers at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, were published in JAMA Network Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Medical Association.
The study, which does not prove that pet ownership causes slower declines but is instead associated with them, builds on existing evidence that preventing isolation, Loneliness and stress can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias, said Dr. Thomas Wisnieski, director of the Division of Cognitive Neurology at NYU Langone Health, in New York. There is currently no known cure for dementia.
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“Generally speaking, many studies have shown that being isolated is bad for cognition and increases the risk of developing dementia,” said Wisnieski, who was not involved in the study.
The UK’s elderly population, like that of the US, is expected to grow and life expectancy is expected to increase, raising concerns about public health demands as their cognitive functions decline. Already, more than 1 in 10 Americans aged 65 and older suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, according to the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Association. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 6 million people have Alzheimer’s disease, and that number is expected to rise to 14 million by 2060.
The study used wave data from 7,945 participants in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging from 2010-11 to 2018-19, with a mean age of 66 years. Participants, approximately 56% of whom were women, were tested annually on composite verbal cognition, verbal memory, and verbal fluency, and living alone significantly affected all cognitive functions studied. About 35% owned pets and just under 27% lived alone in a household.
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The aging study tested participants’ verbal memory on immediate and delayed recall of 10 unrelated words; The researchers assessed verbal fluency by asking participants to list as many animal names as possible in one minute. The results showed slower rates of decline in verbal memory and verbal fluency in people with pets who lived alone compared to those alone, without a pet.
The researchers said more studies are needed to further flesh out the findings.
The authors noted limitations to the study because it only tested two aspects of cognitive function. The study was also only observational, which does not prove any cause. Additionally, almost all participants were white, so the results cannot be generalized to other racial or ethnic groups. Black people are twice as likely to develop dementia as white people.
NYU Langone’s Wisnieski said more research is needed on different types of populations and over longer periods of time. Another limitation is that the average age of study participants, 66, is rather young to start showing cognitive declines, he added. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, for example, may first appear after age 60, with increasing risks with
In age, the CDC said.
There may be other reasons for this slowing decline than just pet ownership. Having a pet often requires exercising or interacting with other pet owners, Wisnieski said.
Many environmental factors linked to cognitive decline are preventable. This may include lifestyle changes such as exercise, diet, and reducing social isolation to help maintain cognitive function.
Eduardo Cuevas covers health and breaking news for USA TODAY. He can be contacted at EMCuevas1@usatoday.com.
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