25 February 2022

It's good to live with kitty…

Having pets turned out to be beneficial for maintaining cognitive functions

Maria Azarova, Naked Science

Scientists from the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor and the University of Florida (USA) decided to investigate the relationship between the presence of pets and the level of cognitive functions in their elderly owners. The results are reported in a press release on the website of the American Academy of Neurology (Do pets have a positive effect on your brain health?); they will also be discussed at the 74th annual meeting of the organization in April.

The fact that having a pet has a positive effect on human health and well-being has been confirmed repeatedly: in particular, as the authors of some previous scientific papers have shown, animal owners are less at risk of death from cardiovascular diseases, and the emotional state and social skills of their children are much better than those of peers growing up in families without pets. In addition, cats, for example, can help increase empathy and reduce anxiety in autistic children.

This time, American researchers studied the data of 1,369 elderly residents of the United States (the average age is 65 years): 53% of them had animals (a cat or a dog) at home, and 32% had been their owners for at least five years. The information was taken from a long-term Health and Retirement Study survey from the Survey Research Center (SRC) at the Institute for Social Research.

Participants had to take several tests — for subtraction, counting back and memorizing words — as a result of which they received an assessment of the cognitive functions of each person, from zero to 27. Then, based on these scores, the relationship between the level of a person's mental abilities and the presence of a pet at home was evaluated. Data was collected from 2010 to 2016, people with cognitive impairment were excluded from the analysis.

According to scientists, initially animal owners were less likely to experience hypertension (44.0% vs. 49.2%), had a higher socio-economic status, but they were more prone to depression (23.8% vs. 14.0%) — compared to those who did not have pets.

Nevertheless, over the six-year period of the study, the assessment of cognitive functions declining in the aging process was higher in people who kept pets at home. The difference was especially noticeable for those who had a pet for a long time: so, on average, after six years, their score on cognitive abilities was 1.2 points higher than that of participants who lived without pets. Such advantages from having pets at home were especially often noted among men, blacks and graduates of higher education.

Of course, to understand the reasons for the connection and confirm it, additional research will be required. "Since stress can negatively affect cognitive functions, the potential effects of stress buffering due to pet ownership may explain our findings. In addition, a companion animal helps to increase physical activity, and this also benefits cognitive health," summed up the author of the work and Doctor of Medicine Tiffany Brayley.

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