Caring for a pet proves to be a protective factor against cognitive decline for individuals aged 50 and above who live independently, according to a recent study encompassing almost 8,000 participants.

The research, conducted on 7,945 mostly white British individuals with an average age of 66, examined data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Over an eight-year period, the study found that pet ownership was linked to slower rates of decline in verbal memory and verbal fluency for older adults living alone.

Of the participants, 35.1% owned pets, and approximately 30% lived alone. While previous studies had identified living alone as a potential risk factor for dementia and cognitive decline, this research revealed that among individuals living solo, having dogs or cats was associated with reduced feelings of loneliness.

While some prior research hinted at the connection between pet ownership and improved verbal memory and executive function, results have been inconsistent. The current study, published in JAMA Network, aimed to delve deeper into the relationship between aging alone—a trend on the rise—and pet ownership, yielding clear results.

The study’s corresponding author, Professor Ciyong Lu of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, highlighted, “Pet ownership offset the associations between living alone and declining rates in verbal memory and verbal fluency,” describing it as “a significant modifier” in all three associations—composite verbal cognition, verbal memory, and verbal fluency.

The findings suggest that pet ownership may contribute to a slower cognitive decline among older adults who live independently. However, the study did not observe any significant impact on older individuals living with others.

Professor Lu is now advocating for clinical trials to inform public health measures addressing dementia in the elderly.

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