Adults over the age of 65 who owned a pet for more than five years scored better on memory tests than non-pet owners, according to a study.
The benefits that companion animals have on ageing brains was revealed by the study that was conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan in the US.
They assessed data from a nationally representative survey conducted from 2010-16 that recorded the pet status of about 20,000 adults over the age of 50.
The findings, published recently in the Journal of Aging and Health, suggested that those aged 65 and more and who owned a pet for over five years demonstrated higher cognitive scores, including in word recall tests, compared to non-pet owners.
“Sustained pet ownership was associated with higher immediate and delayed word recall scores,” researchers wrote in the study, adding that pets may help mitigate cognitive disparities such as dementia in older adults.
However, this effect was visible only among pet owners over 65 years of age.
“There were no significant differences in cognitive scores between pet owners and non-owners aged less than 65,” scientists wrote.
Researchers, however, said the findings were only an association and a causal link could not be established by the study.
They have called for further studies to examine potential causal pathways by which pets helped mitigate memory decline.
Previous studies suggested owning pets may influence many health outcomes such as loneliness and depression by providing emotional support and stress-buffering.
Since cognitive impairments such as late-onset Alzheimer’s are most likely to manifest after 65, scientists postulate that if a causal pathway exists between pet ownership and the ageing brain, the benefits “would be most apparent in participants in their seventh decade and above”.
Researchers speculated that “love hormone” oxytocin may be behind the observed positive effects of pet ownership in older adults.
Previous studies have shown that oxytocin affects social cognition and memory encoding in humans, and a link between the hormone’s levels and bonding with companion animals has been noted as well.
Scientists also found that sustained ownership of a pet tended to show indicators of greater physical activity and lower incidence of diabetes and hypertension than short-term and non-owners, indicating the likelihood of other potential mechanisms playing a part.
“Beyond the physiological responses discussed above, pets could provide social support and thus promote cognitive health via psychological wellbeing,” researchers added.