A new research discovered that having a long-term pet companion may help to minimize memory loss and other types of cognitive impairments. As per the initial study, owning a pet was highly helpful for working verbal memory tasks such as word list memorization.
"To our knowledge, our study is the first to consider the effect of duration of pet ownership on cognitive health," said first author Jennifer Applebaum, a sociology doctoral candidate and National Institute of Health predoctoral fellow at the University of Florida, in an email to CNN.
It's not just cats and dogs who can help your brain. According to Applebaum, participants in the research also tended to rabbits, hamsters, birds, fish, and reptiles, whilst "dogs were most prevalent, followed by cats."
According to clinical neuroimmunologist Dr. Tiffany Braley, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan, having domestic pets for five years or more generated the most significance, slowing memory impairment by 1.2 points over the six-year observation period in comparison to the rate of decline in individuals without pets.
"These findings provide early evidence to suggest that long-term pet ownership could be protective against cognitive decline," said Braley, senior author of the study to be presented in April at the American Academy of Neurology's 74th Annual Meeting.
Previous research has shown that stress, particularly chronic stress, has a negative impact on brain health, according to Braley.
"Prior research has also identified associations between interactions with companion animals and physiological measures of stress reduction, including reductions in cortisol levels and blood pressure, which in the long term could have an impact on cognitive health," she said.
According to experts, pet ownership can provide a plethora of other brain benefits like social companionship and a sense of obligation and motivation.
"Having a pet or multiple pets combines many core components of a brain-healthy lifestyle," said Dr. Richard Isaacson, director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic in the Center for Brain Health at Florida Atlantic University's Schmidt College of Medicine.
"Cognitive engagement, socialization, physical activity and having a sense of purpose can separately, or even more so in combination, address key modifiable risk factors for cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease dementia," she added.
The researchers examined cognitive data from over 1,300 individuals who took part in the Health and Retirement Study, a nationwide survey study that follows the lives of Americans aged 50 and up.
Anyone who showed signs of cognitive drop at the outset of the survey was removed from the dataset. Over 53% of those in the final study had pets. Pet parents seemed to to be of higher socioeconomic status, which could also be a factor in the benefits: experts believe that people with more money are more likely to consult doctors and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Over a five-year period, any cognitive benefit attributed to pet ownership was "more noticeable for Black adults, college-educated adults, and men," according to the study. "More research is needed to explain these findings," Applebaum said. "We are lacking sufficient information about men (and other genders) AND people of color, especially Black pet owners," she said, citing prior studies which was mostly conducted on subjective samples of White women.
According to research, pet parents can be lonely, depressed, or have chronic factors that make pet ownership a critical experience.
"We do not recommend pet ownership as a therapeutic intervention," Applebaum said. "However, we do recommend that people who own pets be supported in keeping them via public policy and community partnerships."
Other suggestions include offering foster or boarding care for people who are momentarily unable to care for their pets due to a medical emergency.
"An unwanted separation from a pet can be devastating for a bonded owner, and marginalized populations are most at-risk of these unwanted outcomes," she said.