Can Pets Prevent Dementia in Seniors?

Can Pets Prevent Dementia in Seniors?
Can Pets Prevent Dementia in Seniors?

The benefits of pet ownership are obvious to anyone who has a pet. From a loving or playful dog to a cuddly cat (or even a sometimes grouchy and aloof one), pets give us a reason to smile. Other pets get our affection as well, from birds to turtles to ferrets and even tiny hamsters. Over half of seniors have at least one pet, and those pets bring a wealth of benefits, including reducing loneliness, enhancing physical health, and improving one’s overall quality of life.

Researchers have conducted many studies that prove, time and time again, that pets bring seniors and elderly adults benefits well beyond feeling happy.

A Study on Pet Ownership and Senior Cognitive Decline

A new study from the University of Michigan analyzed the cognitive data on more than 1,300 seniors who are part of a larger, ongoing project called the Health and Retirement Study. More than 53% of those in the study were found to own pets. The most common pets were dogs, followed by cats. Other animals owned by those in the study included rabbits, reptiles, hamsters, fish, and birds.

The study found that those who owned a pet were more proficient at working verbal memory, such as being able to memorize and recall lists. The six-year study found that owning a pet for at least five years provided the strongest benefit for cognitive health.

Those who were already experiencing cognitive decline were not included in the study, so there is no evidence here that pets can reverse cognitive decline; the study reports that pets can slow it down.

Why Do Pets Make Our Brains Better?

There is a long list of ways that pets bring benefits to our lives, especially to the lives of seniors. Studies have proven that pet ownership can lead to lower blood pressure and heart rate, faster recovery from stressful situations, and long-term survival in patients who experience cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks. Even diabetes and high cholesterol can be affected by the presence of a loving pet.[1]

But why does this happen? Scientists point out that lack of physical activity, chronic stress, and cardiovascular disease are all culprits in possible cognitive decline. Pets prevent those factors by being a great outlet for stress and encouraging exercise, which can help stave off cardiovascular diseases. The reduction of stress means that the body releases less cortisol, the stress hormone. According to the Cleveland Clinic, having less cortisol coursing through your body can help you avoid many chronic conditions, including hypertension, diabetes, and even osteoporosis.


The social companionship and sense of purpose a pet can provide is also incredibly helpful in fighting off loneliness and depression.[2] In fact, surveys have found that pet owners were 60% more likely to get to know their neighbors than those who don’t have pets.[3] Socialization can be a strong factor in reducing loneliness. According to Aging & Mental Health, more than one in three pet owners were less likely to report feeling lonely.

And did you know that a pet can help reduce stress? Three-quarters of all pet owners told the University of Michigan that their pets relieved stress. The simple presence of a loving animal even helped alleviate pain from chronic conditions or medical procedures.[4]

Should You or Your Elderly Loved One Get a Pet?

Given the results of these studies, it seems like getting a pet is an excellent idea, right? But not so fast, researchers say. Getting a pet simply to boost your brain health might not be the best move, as while this study shows promising evidence, more research is needed.

One of the biggest benefits of this study could be changes in public policy regarding pet ownership, especially among older adults. Jennifer W. Applebaum, one of the study authors, told Healthline that being unable to keep a cherished pet can do great harm. “An unwanted separation from a pet can be devastating for a bonded owner,” she said.

Applebaum suggested that policy changes to prevent this from happening might include abolishing or regulating pet fees on rental housing, providing boarding support for those who have a health crisis and nowhere to keep their pet, and free or low-cost veterinary care available to lower income pet owners.

Tips for Choosing the Right Pet

Not just any pet will do – it has to be the right one. There are many factors to take into account when choosing the pet that will be your best companion throughout your golden years. Here are some recommendations from the American Veterinary Medical Association to consider, adapted specifically for seniors:

·         Consider the costs. Though it’s always a great idea to get a pet from a shelter for a small fee, there are other costs that can start to stack up after you bring your pet home. You’ll need to provide food, the proper housing, exercise, grooming, and veterinary care. Most animals are social and so will need to interact with other animals, such as taking a dog to the dog park or having more than one hamster in the cage. And remember that some animals, such as birds, require special care that might be a bit more costly than that of more typical pets, like dogs and cats. Make sure that there is enough money in the coffers to provide for your pet, especially if you are on a fixed income.

·         Have a contingency plan. Though it is wonderful to live independently, your situation could change in the future. Think about short-term absences; who will take care of your pet while you are away? It’s also a good idea to think about the possibility of your pet outliving you. Who would take care of them when you’re gone? Thinking through a contingency plan can help you decide if it’s time to get a pet.

·         Think about the pet’s care needs. Most dogs will need to be walked at least a few times a day. Some cats might need extensive grooming of their long and luxurious coat. And some other animals, such as birds, need special care on a day-to-day basis. Consider which animals will fit into your life. For instance, if you have mobility issues, an active dog might not be the best idea.

·         Does your housing arrangement allow for pets? If you live in your own home, you have a lot of freedom in choosing a pet. But if you live in a rental property, you might face a pet fee on a monthly basis for the privilege of having a pet, or you might have restrictions on pets you can own. For instance, hamsters and guinea pigs might be just fine, but dogs and cats might not be allowed.

If you do choose to get a pet, take care to stay safe while enjoying the companionship, especially if you have a pet that requires a lot of physical activity. It’s important to have a plan in place to reach out for help if you do suffer an emergency with your pet. A 24/7 personal alarm button, especially one with fall detection, can provide peace of mind.

No matter what you choose to do to boost your brain health, whether via pet ownership or other means, remember that staying safe is a powerful way to make sure your mind stay sharp. Aging in place solutions can help keep you safe, and so can an emergency response system from Alert1. Having medical alert technology as part of your day-to-day life can assure you that if emergencies happen, you won’t have to wait for hours or even days for help to arrive. Just press the button and help is on the way. Whether it’s a medical alert watch or pendant, having help right at your fingertips provides the kind of peace of mind that can reduce stress – and that in and of itself can lead to better brain health!