Protecting brain health and cognitive functioning as we age is crucial. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 5.8 million people in the U.S. are living with dementia. With that number only anticipated to increase, many recent studies have been geared towards understanding what causes the condition, as well as what may help prevent it. One such study investigated the relationship between cognitive decline and something you may already have at home. Read on to find out how this one thing could help prevent the development of dementia.
Recent studies have investigated preventative measures for dementia.
Studies have found different foods and drinks that can either increase or mitigate your risk of dementia. One recent study, for example, found that vitamin K has the potential to improve cognitive abilities in aging brains. Different forms of vitamin K are found in leafy green vegetables, fermented foods, some cheeses, meats, and fish—and research suggests getting optimal daily doses may help protect your brain in the long run. Now, yet another study has linked cognitive benefits with something many of us know and love.
A new study found that having this at home could have positive effects on your cognitive health.
You might want to hold your furry friend that much tighter and maybe treat them to an extra chew toy, as findings from a recent study suggest they could actually help slow rates of cognitive decline. Preliminary data were presented at the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) meeting earlier this month, outlining how "sustained relationships with companion animals" could help keep your brain healthy.
"Prior studies have suggested that the human-animal bond may have health benefits like decreasing blood pressure and stress," said study author Tiffany Braley, MD, MS, associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan Medical Center, said in an AAN press release. "Our results suggest pet ownership may also be protective against cognitive decline."
Richard Isaacson, MD, director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic in the Center for Brain Health at Florida Atlantic University's Schmidt College of Medicine, echoed this when speaking with CNN about the findings. According to Isaacson, who was not affiliated with the study, owning a pet or multiple pets integrates "core components of a brain-healthy lifestyle."
"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," he told CNN.
The study evaluated over 1,300 adults who were given cognitive tests.
The study looked at the cognitive data from 1,369 adults over the age of 50 from a University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study. The participants had an average age of 65 years and normal cognitive skills when the study began. Over half of the participants (53 percent) owned pets, and of those, 32 percent were long-time pet owners (those who owned pets for over five years).
Over the course of six years, between 2010 and 2016, these participants were given cognitive tests, including a word recall, a subtraction test, and a "backwards count" test. Results helped researchers develop a composite cognitive score for each participant, ranging from one to 27, which was then used to estimate associations between years of pet ownership and cognitive function, the AAN press release said.
Long-term pet ownership yielded the best results.
Researchers found that pet owners' cognitive composite scores decreased at a slower rate when compared with non-pet owners. These results were stronger for long-term pet owners, whose average scores were 1.2 points higher than non-pet owners at the six-year mark, the AAN press release stated.
Demographics seemed to come into play, as pet owners generally had higher socioeconomic status when compared with non-pet owners. Researchers also found that college-educated adults, Black adults, and men who were long-term pet owners had even more prominent cognitive benefits.
In an email to CNN, first author Jennifer Applebaum, sociology doctoral candidate and National Institutes of Health (NIH) predoctoral fellow at the University of Florida, identified demographics as an area for additional investigation, as research has previously been focused on White women (the study itself was primarily comprised of White participants).
"We are lacking sufficient information about men (and other genders) and people of color, especially Black pet owners," Applebaum told CNN.
Researchers believe these positive effects may have something to do with stress.
While researchers could not definitively say why long-term pet ownership had the best effect, according to Braley, having a pet may help mitigate stress and keep you moving—both of which aid in keeping your brain healthy.
"As stress can negatively affect cognitive function, the potential stress-buffering effects of pet ownership could provide a plausible reason for our findings," Braley stated in the AAN press release. "A companion animal can also increase physical activity, which could benefit cognitive health."
Results are encouraging, but study was not without limitations. As the length of pet ownership was only assessed at one point in time, this eliminated the ability for researchers to assess ongoing pet ownership. Researchers do not recommend owning a pet "as a therapeutic intervention," as sometimes pet ownership can actually lead to higher rates of depression, Applebaum told CNN. In fact, in the present study, pet owners had a lower prevalence of hypertension, but a higher rate of depression.
Additional research is needed to confirm the most recent findings, and "identify underlying mechanisms for this association," Braley said.