Health and Wellness

Having a pet could help you stay sharper as you age, according to a new study — here's how

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If you're a pet owner, you probably already believe in the value of spending more time cuddling with your animal friends.

But in case you were on the fence, there's some new scientific research to suggest that long-term pet ownership could actually be good for your brain, even helping to slow cognitive decline in older adults.

A preliminary study released Wednesday by researchers at the University of Michigan linked owning a pet for five or more years to delayed aging in the brain in adults around the age of 65. The new data is expected to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's 74th Annual Meeting in Seattle in April.

"Prior studies have suggested that the human-animal bond may have health benefits like decreasing blood pressure and stress," Dr. Tiffany Braley of the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who authored the study, said in a press release. However, she added, "our results suggest pet ownership may also be protective against cognitive decline."

The researchers looked at cognitive data from an existing study of more than 1,300 older adults with an average age of 65 who all had normal cognitive skills at the start of the study. Of those participants, 53% owned pets with 32% of them describing themselves as long-term pet owners, meaning that they had owned a pet for five years or more.

The researchers measured cognitive function based on tests administered to study participants over a six-year period, including number counting, subtraction problems and word recall tests. Based on how participants performed on those tests each year, they received a cognitive score ranging from 0 to 27.

The Michigan researchers found that over the six-year period, cognitive scores decreased at a slower rate in pet owners than non-pet owners. The difference in cognitive decline was even stronger among long-term pet owners. On average, long-term pet owners had a cognitive score 1.2 points higher compared to participants without pets.

What's more, the researchers also found that the cognitive benefits of pet ownership in older people were even greater in Black participants, men, and seniors with a college education, according to the report. More than 88% of the study's participants were white, 7% Black, 2% Hispanic and 3% were of another ethnicity or race.

While Braley said more research is still needed to confirm their results, she believes that past research showing pets reducing owners' stress levels could be one explanation of this study's results. "Stress can negatively affect cognitive function," she said, which means lower stress levels could help slow cognitive decline.

Past research has also shown that owners of pets, especially dogs, are more likely to exercise and walk more often than non-pet owners. That additional exercise could be a boost to your brain as well as your body, according to Braley.

 "A companion animal can also increase physical activity, which could benefit cognitive health," she said.

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