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How Pets Can Protect Cognitive Health in Older Adults

  • March 27, 2024
  • Healthy living for mental well-being, Patients and Families

Pets offer a range of benefits for our physical and mental health. Several recent studies add to the list, finding that pet ownership can help slow cognitive decline and prevent dementia in older adults.

In a study of nearly 8,000 older adults, published in JAMA Network Open in January, researchers found that among those living alone, having a pet was associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline (specifically composite verbal cognition, verbal memory and verbal fluency). The study used data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, an ongoing study, over an eight-year period.

man sitting on sofa with 2 dogs

They did not see the same positive impact of pet ownership among those living with someone else. That is, there were no differences in rates of cognitive decline between pet owners living alone and pet owners living with others.

Cognitive decline is common with older age and can potentially harm quality of life and lead to additional caregiver and financial/healthcare system burdens. Identifying high-risk populations and promoting changes in modifiable risk factors are important public health approaches. Previous research has found that older adults living alone are at higher risk of dementia and cognitive decline than those living with someone else. The number of people living alone has been increasing in recent years.

The authors note that while many older adults may not be able to or want to change their situation of living alone, adding a pet to the household may manageable or acceptable change for some. The authors conclude that their findings “preliminarily suggest that pet ownership might completely offset the association of living alone with faster rates of decline in verbal memory and verbal fluency among older adults.”

Another recent study, published in 2023 in Preventive Medicine Reports, identified specific positive impacts of dog ownership: dog owners had a lower risk of dementia compared to non-dog owners. The study looked at data from more than 11,000 older adults over a 4-year period and adjusted for background factors. This study also examined the impact of potential factors contributing to lower risk of dementia including physical activity and social connection.

2 older adults walking a dog

The authors suggest that dog owners are more likely to have a regular exercise habit as a result of walking the dog and having a dog may also help to create connections and reduce isolation and loneliness. Previous research has found that dog owners who walk their dogs are 2.5 times more likely to achieve moderate physical activity at least 150 minutes per week than non-dog walkers. Dog walking has also been associated with social interaction among older adults.

In the 2023 study they found that while dog owners overall saw dementia-reducing benefits, those who regularly walked their dogs and were not experiencing social isolation had a significantly lower risk of dementia. “Dog care might contribute to the maintenance of physical activity, including having an exercise habit, and social participation even in the face of restrictions to interactions such as those experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic,“ the authors conclude.

A third study looked at the impact of pet ownership on daily activity function among adults with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers in Finland followed a group of more than 220 older adults with mild Alzheimer’s who were living in their homes in the community over a five-year period. Over the five years, pet owners had significantly better daily activity function and slower disease progression compared to non-pet owners. The authors conclude that the significant positive effects suggest that having a pet may support daily activity and slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.


  • Li Y, Wang W, Zhu L, et al. 2023. Pet ownership, living alone, and cognitive decline among adults 50 years and older. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(12). doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.49241
  • Taniguchi, Y., et al. 2023. Protective effects of dog ownership against the onset of disabling dementia in older community-dwelling Japanese: A longitudinal study. Preventive medicine reports, 36, 102465.
  • Rusanen M, Selander T, Kärkkäinen V, Koivisto A. The Positive Effects of Pet Ownership on Alzheimer's Disease. J Alzheimers Dis. 2021;84(4):1669-1675. doi: 10.3233/JAD-210557.

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