May 20, 2023
Moderne Magazine
Cassie Gill

How having a pet reduces brain aging and delays cognitive decline.

Having a dog isn’t just good for your physical health—a new study says they can play an important role in the brain.

Pets already bring plenty to our lives—unconditional love and companionship, for starters—but a new study suggests that they also have a positive effect on our
brain health, particularly when it comes to delaying cognitive decline.

“It’s cognitively demanding to take care of a pet,” says Dr. Henry Mahncke, a neuroscientist who is also the CEO of Posit Science, a company providing brain training software and services.

Cognitive function is “everything the brain does,” explains Mahncke. That includes memory, learning, attention span, the speed in which we can do tasks, and more.

“As we get older, these [brain functions] all tend to kind of slowly get worse,” he says. “Remember, the brain is an organ inside of your body—just like the heart beating inside of your chest,” and subject to the same strains
of aging.

A just-released observational survey conducted by the University of Michigan Medical Center and University of Florida over a six-year window found positive effects in older adults who owned pets compared with those who didn’t. The study particularly analyzed data pertaining to adults with an average age of 65—over half of whom were pet owners (53 percent).

When it comes to pets playing a role in brain health, Mahncke says our furry friends affect both sides of the complex organ. “The first is what you might call the cognitive side of the brain. And the second is what you might call the emotional side of the brain. And those are both very, very important.”

Of the 1,369 adults that were part of the observational Health and Retirement study, 32 percent were classified as “long-term pet owners,’’ meaning they’ve had their companions for five years or more. Participants were given cognitive tests that included word recall, numeric counting, and more to determine how they compared against others in the same age group without pets. Results showed that the cognitive composite score was 1.2 points higher for pet owners over a six-year period compared to non-pet owners.

Another study released in Oct. 2022, using data from the Alabama Brain Study on Risk for Dementia, examined a similar link between cognitive and brain health with pet ownership. Of the 95 participants aged 22 to 74, 56 of whom are pet owners and 39 who were not, it was found that pet ownership was related to higher cognitive levels (specifically, better memory, and processing speed, among other things). It was also found in this separate study that owning a pet could potentially reduce aging of the brain by up to 15 years.

What’s particularly fascinating about the University of Michigan Medical Center and University of Florida study initially referenced, Mahncke tells Modern Dog, is what actually happens to our brains when we have to take care of a dog, cat, or other pet.

“There’s what we do with our pet and there’s what we do for our pet,” Mahncke explains.

For example, taking your dog for a daily walk is one of the most common activities that people with dogs undertake.

“If you have a dog, you’re out in the world more often, right? All of those things are really cognitively stimulating for the brain,” says Mahncke, noting that this type of physical activity is recommended for older adults with or without pets.

“We know there’s an important role for physical activity and maintaining brain health…but a pet is extra motivation,” he adds. Of course, there are also tasks that pertain to taking care of our companions–primarily feeding or bathing.

“If you think about the cognitive demands involved: I have to remember to go to the store and I have to get my pet food and feed them multiple times a day,” says Mahncke, who is the owner of two cats himself.

There’s a direct correlation, he further explains, between having those chores and responsibilities–which create additional cognitive activity for our human brains.

“If we have more cognitive demands in everyday life, we’re going to have healthier brains [because] our brains are more active,” he adds.

The emotional side plays an equally important role when it comes to affecting brain chemistry, too.

“Think about the love that we get from a pet, and the love that we give to a pet; this releases a neurochemical called oxytocin that’s involved in pair bonding,” he says.

Oxytocin is also related to what he calls “brain plasticity,” which is the concept that the brain changes and reorganizes itself throughout one’s lifespan. Healthy brains are more easily adaptable to change, which is partially why learning attention spans wane and learning new skills is more difficult for older adults.

Beyond improving cognitive function, pets can also have a positive effect on reducing stress in adults.

“When we interact with our pets, it reduces our cortisol levels,” Mahncke details. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and can have a profound effect on our mood. Too much stress, however, can lead to an increase in cortisol production—and there’s no shortage of studies linking stress to heart disease, cancer and other conditions.

“We know that stress is terrible for the brain—a short period of stress is okay, but chronic stress is terrible for brain health,” he says. “Stress reduces learning and memory, for example, causing neural cells to become disconnected to each other.”

“Reducing stress is going to contribute to brain health,” he also says. “Pets end up having these deep impacts on literally the wiring of our brain.”

In a similar vein, robotic pets have also been proven to successfully reduce stress as well as improve the moods of those who are already suffering with dementia per a study by Florida Atlantic University released in October 2021—creating a whole new category of pet therapy. Researchers employed the use of a robotic cat to measure cognition with the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE), which found that the “pet” helped to boost mood overall in more than half of the participants.′