How This One Simple Life Change Can Ward Off Dementia

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Aging is perhaps one of the most natural processes in the world. It’s something no one can avoid forever (try as they might) and ought to be embraced without worry or shame at the mere act of existing. Of course, aging does come with its less-than-desirable effects—the decline of our minds and bodies certainly do take a toll—but know that there are things to be done that can help lessen these effects and leave you feeling youthful no matter how old you are.

One act you can take to ensure your mind remains strong might be surprising, but the research is there, and it’s one many of us already participate in. If you haven’t yet, you might want to give it a shot!

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On Top Of Our Game

As we grow older, it’s good practice to do whatever we can to keep our mental facilities in check. Whatever exercises or activities we can practice, habits we can get into, or hobbies we might pick up, we want to choose the best options for improving our brain and overall health.

An elderly man covering his face with his hands.
Pexels / Kindel Media
Pexels / Kindel Media

Thankfully, this is an area of science that has a fair bit of research poured into it, research that’s produced interesting results. In order to keep away some of the common mental frailties that come with age, there’s a very common change you can make that will also bring a lot of joy to your life.

Staggering Results

The Journal of Aging and Health published a study of Americans over the age of 50, asking questions about their lives, then scoring them through multiple tests that measured brain function.

A plastic model of a brain cut in half.
Unsplash / Robina Weermeijer
Unsplash / Robina Weermeijer

They found that people above 65 who did this thing for more than five years not only had better overall cognitive scores, but also ranked higher in tests relating to memory (such as immediate and delayed word recall tests) compared to those who didn’t. However, there was no difference found between those who did and didn’t do this thing below the age of 65.

What Is This ‘Thing’?

The easy life adjustment you can make? Owning a pet!

A grey tabby cat looking upwards at the camera.
Pexels / Krysten Merriman
Pexels / Krysten Merriman

That’s right, owning a pet (at least in your late 50s to early 60s) greatly helps with maintaining good brain health later in life. Not only in a general sense, but it does an incredible job at warding off dementia in particular.

Dementia is astoundingly common among older folk in North America and around the world, with approximately 5.8 million people living with it in the United States alone. It’s classified as a “group of irreversible neurological syndromes associated with cognitive decline and adverse behavioral changes,” one that many people have witnessed in their own aging family members.

Ever Rising

The risk of dementia increases more as you age. It’s found in 3% of people between 70 and 74 years of age, 22% of those between 85 and 89, and 33% above 90. While the overall percentage of people who have dementia has been lowering, the amount is predicted to increase in the coming years.

An elderly woman smiling as she sits with her dog.
Pexels / Provisionshots
Pexels / Provisionshots

Research has also shown that approximately one third of all dementia cases can be attributed to modifiable factors, meaning there are things you can do and change about your life to decrease your risk of developing it.

A World Of Difference

And yes, one of those things is pet ownership.

Someone petting a cat that's laying on the arm of a chair.
Pexels / Beytlik
Pexels / Beytlik

Having a pet also provides a number of other health benefits, such as a decrease in stress and a source of emotional support. Author of the study linking pet ownership to decreased risk of dementia Tiffany J. Braley, who is also an associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan, said, “Many older adults are pet owners, yet little is known about the potential cognitive effects of pet ownership in older age; namely, whether pet ownership could be protective against cognitive decline.”

Supportive Findings

They supported their analysis with another study done on American adults over 50, the Health and Retirement study.

An elderly couple sitting on a couch with their dog at their feet.
Pexels / cottonbro studio
Pexels / cottonbro studio

This study surveyed 20,000 people every two years since 2010. The survey asked whether or not the participants had pets and for how long. It also assessed cognitive function via a variety of tests.

Author of this study and a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida, Jennifer W. Applebaum, wrote, “We found that, among those aged 65+, long-term pet owners (>5 years) demonstrated better cognitive performance than those who owned pets for shorter periods of time, and those who did not own pets at all.”

A Long Time Coming

“We conclude that long-term pet ownership may impart some protective effects against cognitive decline, but further research is needed to both confirm the findings and to understand how and why this may be the case.”

An elderly man holding a hairless cat.
Pexels / Veronika Tarasova
Pexels / Veronika Tarasova

This was back in 2012, and now, that further research exists.

The Health and Retirement study showed that owning a pet helped maintain strong verbal memory the most out of all their cognitive tests. “Sustained pet ownership was associated with higher immediate and delayed word recall scores,” the researchers wrote, just like the study from the Journal of Aging and Health.

It’s All Connected

Owning a pet also has other benefits that relate back to aiding cognitive function and health. Owning a pet had indicators of more frequent physical activity, a lower BMI, lower rates of diabetes, and lower rates of hypertension, all of which can aid in maintaining mental fortitude.

A greyscale, closeup image of a dog looking through a gap in a fence.
Pexels / Pixabay
Pexels / Pixabay

Again, this was only for those 65+ who had owned a pet for over five years, so if this sounds like a strategy you or a loved one might want to adopt, it’s best to time it out properly.

“Sustained ownership of a pet could mitigate cognitive disparities in older adults.”

A Pleasant Surprise

“I was surprised that the findings held up with rigorous statistical controls,” said Applebaum.

Someone petting a cat that's sitting in their lap.
Pexels / Matthias Zomer
Pexels / Matthias Zomer

“We adjusted the statistical models for sociodemographic factors, which allowed us to account, at least in part, for the effects of known health disparities (e.g., race, socioeconomic status). Oftentimes, any positive health effect of pet ownership disappears in statistical models when accounting for health disparities, likely because the health effects of social inequalities are so profound.”

A Conditional Effect

There are, of course, some stipulations.

An elderly woman leaning her face into her hand, looking off to the side.
Pexels / Kindel Media
Pexels / Kindel Media

It’s worth considering that studies might show higher scores in mental condition among those with pets because those who are already in better health, both mentally and physically, are more able to take care of a pet from the start and are thus able to keep it over the long term.

It’s not worth writing off both studies entirely, but certainly something to think about, as everyone’s individual situation is different.

Maybe Next Time

“While the longitudinal associations in our study are compelling, the design of the study did not allow us to demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship,” Braley explained. “Additional prospective work that includes information on strength of the human-animal bond and its effect on cognitive trajectories, and incorporates study of biological mechanisms that could mediate this relationship, are still needed.”

An older woman reading a book while her dog sits next to her, looking over her shoulder.
Pexels / Ron Lach
Pexels / Ron Lach

So, while this research is still fresh and there’s certainly more to be done to narrow down the benefits, the initial results are incredibly promising.

Boundless Love

Despite any causal factors, the link between pet ownership and decreased chances of dementia remains undeniable.

A corgi laying flat on the floor.
Pexels / Gever
Pexels / Gever

To think, pets give us so much already. No matter if they’re covered in fur, scales, or feathers, pets bring such joy to our lives and provide companionship like no other. The bond between a pet and its owner is absolutely unmatched. Learning that they provide an even greater benefit throughout our lives shouldn’t be surprising at all, as they already give us so much.

If you have a pet, give them a bit of attention as a thank-you for all they do. If you don’t have a pet, but this all seems interesting to you, consider adopting! Plenty of loving animals are looking for equally loving homes, you won’t regret opening your hearts to them.

Daniel Mitchell-Benoit

Dan is a content writer with three years of experience under their belt, having mostly covered viral media but now shifting toward spirituality and astrology. He’s a strong believer in using one’s beliefs as a means of self-improvement and being in touch with whatever messages the universe has to offer.

He can’t wait to share his insights with a[…]