For thousands of years, humans have obsessed over their canine and feline companions. Any pet owner will tell you how their dog or cat brings them joy, alleviates stress, and keeps them active and on their toes. 

But could pets also stave off brain aging? People who own pets are less lonely—a major risk factor for dementia. Playing with your pet or taking them for a walk is a form of exercise which can also keep the brain healthy for longer. Now, scientists are interested in seeing whether people who owned cats or dogs had a lower risk of cognitive decline or dementia. 

Several observational studies published last year suggest that your dog or cat could meaningfully reduce your risk of developing dementia, especially if you’re over the age of 50. 

How pet ownership could reduce the risk of dementia and cognitive decline

In 2023, Japanese researchers published a study that looked at 11,194 older adults to see whether owning dogs or cats provided a protective effect against dementia. 

Compared to those without pets, dog owners were 40 percent less likely to develop dementia over the course of four years. Dog owners who were social or exercised regularly experienced an extra 20 percent decrease in dementia risk.  Unfortunately, the study didn’t find evidence that owning cats had a similar effect. 

At least in this study, dogs came out ahead.

Chinese researchers published a similar study last year, also looking at the link between pet ownership and cognitive decline among a cohort of 7,495 adults over the age of 50 in the UK. 

The participants received psychological tests to assess their memory, verbal fluency, and thinking eight years apart. Owning a cat or dog was associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline among individuals who were living alone. However, older adults living with others saw no significant benefit. 

This study suggests that companionship from dogs or cats could offset some of the negative effects of living alone.

For people who have already developed Alzheimer’s or dementia, there isn’t a lot of research yet on how interactions with pets or trained therapy animals affect further cognitive decline. 

However, many long-term care facilities have also started implementing animal-assisted therapy for their residents facilitated by certified handlers and trained dogs. Dogs can still improve their quality of life. Playtime with a pup could ease agitation, aggression, depression, and even help residents cope with sundowning, emotional and behavioral issues that worsen as daytime fades.

Research is needed to determine whether “prescribing” pets to otherwise lonely or isolated older adults could have a protective effect on their brains.