Brain Health

Pets Prevent Dementia in Single Seniors

Pets Prevent Dementia in Single Seniors about undefined

More than a quarter of U.S. adults aged 60 and older live alone. And over the next two decades, the number of people living alone over the age of 80 is expected to explode from 47 million people globally in 2015 to 131 million by the year 2050. Some are even calling living alone the next national health crisis.

Living alone as an older person has its challenges from social isolation, but it can also negatively impact your overall health. For example, did you know that living alone dramatically increases your dementia risk? That's why researchers have long been investigating the best ways to lower the risk of memory loss and cognitive impairment. Recently, they wondered: would owning a pet make a difference? Pet owners and researchers say yes...

Memory Loss: A Surprising Pitfall of Living Alone

The science is clear: A recent review of a dozen studies on cognitive decline confirms that living alone puts you at a greater risk for developing dementia than physical inactivity, hypertension, diabetes, and even obesity. It's shocking news for most of us. But we've reported before on the dangers of loneliness and its impact on your memory.

What's more, a study published in the Journals of Gerontology found that it's not just living alone that's the problem—it’s the accumulated time that you've lived alone. For instance, the research team found the association between living alone and cognitive decline increases with longer accumulated exposures to solitary living during old age. The strength of this association was similar between men and women, with each showing a roughly 10 percent increase in dementia risk (11.1% among men; 8.8% among women) for every two years lived alone.

What can you do about it? Not everyone can live with friends or family, but there is a solution: Own a pet.

Pets Prevent Dementia and Provide Comfort and Healing

Many hospitals allow animals to enter the wards for pet therapy. This is said to help lift spirits, relieve stress, and lower blood pressure—all factors that lower the risk of dementia. Animal-assisted therapy has also been linked to improved motor skills, joint movement, and increased pain tolerance, which can be particularly beneficial for individuals undergoing rehabilitation or long-term care for chronic health conditions.

Owning a pet can achieve many of these benefits on a permanent basis and, more importantly, can reduce loneliness in elderly people—a common risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia.

Dog Owners and Cat Owners Were Protected Against Alzheimer's disease

A study involving 95 participants concluded that “pet ownership, especially dog ownership, may play a role in enhancing cognitive performance across the adult lifespan, which could in turn influence protection against age-related cognitive decline.”

What's more, researchers from the National Institute on Aging concluded from their study of 378 people over the age of 50 that those who owned a dog or a cat had better cognitive function when compared with non-pet owners.

A recent study published in 2023 found that of 1,369 seniors, those who owned a pet for more than five years demonstrated better cognitive scores compared to non-pet owners. However, not all studies show that pet ownership improves cognition, so researchers from Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China, carried out a study using a much larger number of participants. Their goal was to answer the question once and for all of whether the connection between pet ownership and improved brain health is valid.

Pet Ownership: Slowed Cognitive Decline in Those Living Alone

Their study utilized people enrolled in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing and included 7,945 participants with an average age of 66.3. Just over a third of the participants owned a pet and just over a quarter lived alone. The research team followed them from 2010 to 2019 and tested these participants' verbal memory and fluency. The verbal memory test involved recalling immediately and after a delay, a list of ten unrelated words spoken to them. For verbal fluency, participants had to list as many animal names as possible in one minute.

The findings, published in JAMA Network Open in December 2023, found that pet owners had slower declines in verbal memory and verbal fluency than non-pet owners, but this didn’t apply to people who lived with others.

The Chinese researchers wrote: “These findings preliminarily suggest that pet ownership might completely offset the association of living alone with faster rates of decline in verbal memory and verbal fluency among older adults. If randomized clinical trials confirm our findings, pet ownership may help in slowing cognitive decline and preventing dementia.”

Pet Owners Get Much More Than Companionship

In addition to helping prevent dementia and improve cognitive health, becoming a pet owner provides numerous other health benefits, from protecting against cardiovascular disease to providing companionship. For example, pet ownership:

  1. Increases Beneficial Probiotic Bacteria In Your Body: We reported on research out of Canada that revealed pet owners have higher levels of healthy, probiotic bacteria in their digestive tracts that were linked to having fewer allergies and avoiding obesity.
  2. Promotes Social Connectedness: Pets can help fend off loneliness, make you feel happy, and increase feelings of purpose.
  3. Lowers Blood Pressure: Pet ownership is linked to lower blood pressure, which can have a positive impact on cardiovascular health.
  4. Reduces Stress and Anxiety: Interacting with pets has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone, and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
  5. Encourages Exercise and Outdoor Activities: Regular walking or playing with pets can increase opportunities for exercise, which is beneficial for physical and mental health.
  6. Improves Heart Health: Some studies have suggested that owning a pet can reduce the risk of heart attacks and contribute to better heart health.

The Positive Effects of Long Term Pet Ownership

“Dogs are very present. If someone is struggling with something, they know how to sit there and be loving,” says Dr. Ann Berger, a physician and researcher at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. “Their attention is focused on the person all the time.”

Dr. Berger works with people who have terminal illnesses like cancer. She teaches them how to lower their stress and anxiety levels, as well as how to manage pain using mindfulness.

“The foundations of mindfulness include attention, intention, compassion, and awareness,” Dr. Berger explains. “All of those things are things that animals bring to the table. People kind of have to learn it. Animals do this innately.”

What Companion Animal is Right For You?

“There’s not one answer about how a pet can help somebody with a specific condition,” explains Dr. Layla Esposito, who oversees the National Institutes of Health Human-Animal Interaction Research Program. “Is your goal to increase physical activity? Then you might benefit from owning a dog. You have to walk a dog several times a day and you’re going to increase physical activity. If your goal is reducing stress, sometimes watching fish swim can result in a feeling of calmness. So there’s no one type fits all.”

Other Ways To Improve Your Health When Living Alone

We've reported in the past on the importance of remaining socially engaged as you age if you want to retain a clear, sharp memory. This becomes especially important if you're living alone. In fact, studies show that just the act of repeatedly eating alone is bad for your health! A pet can help, but so can:

  1. Building a Support Network: Strengthening relationships and connecting with loved ones through calls, texts, and social activities can help combat feelings of loneliness.
  2. Engaging in Activities: Participating in hobbies, joining clubs, volunteering, and taking classes can provide opportunities to meet new people and expand social circles, contributing to a sense of community and belonging.
  3. Prioritizing Self-Care: Focusing on physical, mental, and emotional well-being through self-care activities such as mindfulness, exercise, and healthy routines can help individuals thrive while living alone.
  4. Seeking Professional Help: If feelings of loneliness or mental health concerns become overwhelming, reaching out to a therapist or joining a support group can provide valuable support and guidance.

Our Takeaway

Dementia prevention begins with your lifestyle. In addition to staying socially engaged and avoiding isolation, you can prevent Alzheimer's disease and improve your cognitive health by eating an anti-inflammatory diet, such as the Mediterranean Diet or the GreenMed Diet, avoiding processed food and avoiding alcohol in excess, exercising regularly, managing stress, and getting sufficient sleep. The research is clear that no matter what your genetic risk for Alzheimer's disease, you can lower it with the right lifestyle.

Benjamin A Shaw, Tse-Chuan Yang, Seulki Kim, Living Alone During Old Age and the Risk of Dementia: Assessing the Cumulative Risk of Living Alone, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Volume 78, Issue 2, February 2023, Pages 293–301, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbac156

Roopal Desai, et al. Living alone and risk of dementia: A systematic review and meta-analysis, Ageing Research Reviews, Volume 62, 2020. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1568163720302579

McDonough IM, Erwin HB, Sin NL, Allen RS. Pet ownership is associated with greater cognitive and brain health in a cross-sectional sample across the adult lifespan. Front Aging Neurosci. 2022 Oct 20;14:953889. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2022.953889. PMID: 36337704; PMCID: PMC9630635. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36337704/

Friedmann E, Gee NR, Simonsick EM, Studenski S, Resnick B, Barr E, Kitner-Triolo M, Hackney A. Pet Ownership Patterns and Successful Aging Outcomes in Community Dwelling Older Adults. Front Vet Sci. 2020 Jun 25;7:293. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2020.00293. PMID: 32671105; PMCID: PMC7330097. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32671105/

Applebaum JW, Shieu MM, McDonald SE, Dunietz GL, Braley TJ. The Impact of Sustained Ownership of a Pet on Cognitive Health: A Population-Based Study. J Aging Health. 2023 Mar;35(3-4):230-241. doi: 10.1177/08982643221122641. Epub 2022 Aug 25. PMID: 36006805; PMCID: PMC10280126. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36006805/

Li Y, Wang W, Zhu L, et al. Pet Ownership, Living Alone, and Cognitive Decline Among Adults 50 Years and Older. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(12):e2349241. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.49241 https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2813138

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