Elderly people should live with a cat or dog

Elderly people should live with a cat or dog because there is firm evidence in studies that doing so slows natural cognitive decline and keeps you physically healthier. There’s a link between the two. There are lots of studies on how elderly people can benefit from cat and/or dog ownership. In this post I am referring to this one: “Pet ownership and maintenance of cognitive function in community-residing older adults: evidence from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA)”. Citation at base of article.

Note: there is a caveat to the clear benefits to elderly people: with old age comes the gradual inability to care adequately or to a good standard a cat or dog. There comes a time when an old person can no longer care for a companion animal as they struggle with their declining abilities and almost certainly chronic ill-health. If an old person can’t manage, they should not adopt a pet. That’s my view. I accept alternative viewpoints. We have to be concerned both for the welfare of the human and the animal.

Elderly couple walk with their dog in a park and help to maintain their cognitive function as a consequence
Elderly couple walk with their dog in a park and help to maintain their cognitive function as a consequence. The image is free to use under an unconditional Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original and download it by right clicking on it.
Until September 7th I will give 10 cents to an animal charity for every comment. It is a way to help animal welfare without much effort at no cost. Comments help this website too, which is about animal welfare.

As you can see it is a longitudinal study which means the researchers repeatedly examined the same individuals to detect any changes that might occur over a period of time to see if and by how much their brain deteriorated in terms of cognition (the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses).

Remaining as sharp as one can into old age is one of the most important tasks for elderly people as it allows them to live fuller lives for longer.

We provide important longitudinal evidence that pet ownership and dog walking contribute to maintaining cognitive function with aging and the need to support pet ownership and dog walking in design of senior communities and services.

Erika Friedmann – University of Maryland.

Owning a cat or dog isn’t just about maintaining cognitive function, it’s about enjoying life as well. And as mentioned at the beginning it also helps to maintain physical well-being.

Everyone loses their mental abilities as they get older with the fear of dementia around the corner. A lot has been said about dementia. I’m not saying that owning a cat or dog prevents dementia but it does, according to the evidence of studies help to prevent the decline of one’s brain.

In this instance, a team from the University of Maryland studied 637 participants aged between 51 and 101 over 13 years. This allowed them to assess any decline in cognitive function. This is what a longitudinal study is all about. They refer to the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Ageing (BLS A).

Nearly 1/3 of the participants lived with a companion animal with 11% living with cats and 13% living with dogs.

The cognitive function of all the participants declined as they aged but the decline was slower for those who owned cats or dogs compared to those who did not.

Two-thirds of dog owners reported that they walked their dogs and this group experienced slower cognitive decline than those who lived with dogs but didn’t walk them.

“Older adult pet owners experience less decline in cognitive function as they age, after considering both their pre-existing health and age. Memory, executive function, language function, psychomotor speed, and processing speed deteriorated less over 10 years among pet owners than among non-owners and among dog owners than non-owners. Cat owners experienced less deterioration in memory and language function. Dog walking also was associated with slower deterioration in cognitive function.”

Erika Friedmann – University of Maryland.

So how does it work? The study abstract i.e. summary does not explain. But we know that dogs and cats provide great companionship. This supports general well-being. It helps to remove a sense of isolation and loneliness. We know that loneliness is a driver of mental and physical decline. So companionship is a factor here.

And for dogs particularly, there’s the physical activity of walking your dog. And the kind of place where you walk your dog will be beneficial to because it will usually be a park where the dog owner can connect with nature. It is a known fact that connecting with nature is also beneficial. And of course there is the physical activity aspect of walking which helps to maintain the body.

It’s vital for elderly people to maintain as best they can a good BMI which means more exercise and a much reduced diet. Many of my neighbours are obese which will shorten their lives. And a high percentage suffer from type II diabetes as a consequence.

Owning a cat or dog is part of a package of things that one can do to improve one’s health, live longer and live happier. Maintaining good cognitive function for as long as possible as part of the process of trying to attain the ultimate goal: contentment.

I am planning to move into a retirement village eventually perhaps in about four years time when I am 79. The village I’ve chosen allows pets. It’s important that retirement villages allow pets for the above-mentioned reasons.

Citation: Friedmann, E., Gee, N.R., Simonsick, E.M. et al. Pet ownership and maintenance of cognitive function in community-residing older adults: evidence from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA). Sci Rep 13, 14738 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-41813-y

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