New study reveals owning a pet may decrease your risk of dementia — especially if you live alone

A new study reports owning a dog can help slow down cognitive decline.

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Senior man and his pet dog. Can dog ownership reduce your risk of dementia? (Image via Getty Images)
Can owning a pet help reduce your risk of dementia? (Image via Getty Images)

Pet ownership could have positive impacts on your cognitive health — especially if you live alone.

A recent study published in JAMA Open Network evaluated 7,945 participants over the age of 50 to see if having a pet would benefit brain health and slow down cognitive decline (the ability to think clearly, learn and remember).

"It is estimated that the number of people with dementia worldwide will increase from 57 million in 2019 to 153 million in 2050," the study said. "The deterioration of cognitive function not only seriously impairs individuals' well-being but also brings a huge burden to their caregivers, as well as the financial and health systems of society."

Does owning a pet decrease your risk of developing dementia?

According to researchers, the lack of available treatment to reverse cognitive decline makes "identifying high-risk populations and modifiable risk factors crucial" in developing interventions that help people age as healthfully as possible. But could owning a dog be one of the easy solutions to healthy aging?

Is having a dog better for your cognitive health? (Image via Getty Images)
Owning a dog can help mitigate the impacts of loneliness. (Image via Getty Images)

Using data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), researchers found participants who lived alone with a dog showed slower rates of decline in verbal fluency (the ability to move thoughts to words) and verbal memory (ability to recall information) and composite verbal cognition, but not for those living with other people. A separate 2020 study found older people who owned dogs had better physical function, while people with cats predicted better verbal cognitive function.

Loneliness in Canada

Living with a pet could help mitigate the effects of loneliness, which according to previous research, triples the risk of developing dementia in older adults.

As of 2021, 4.4 million Canadians were living alone, a majority of whom were older adults. The National Institute on Aging reported 41 per cent of Canadians over the age of 50 were at risk of social isolation, 18 per cent said they were "very lonely" while 39 per cent reported feeling "somewhat lonely."

What is dementia and what are the symptoms?

Dementia is an umbrella term for symptoms caused by disorders that affect the brain. More than 50 diseases or conditions can cause dementia, with the most common one being Alzheimer's.

Some of these symptoms include:

  • memory loss, short and long term

  • difficulty thinking

  • difficulty in problem solving

  • changes in moods or behaviour

  • disorientation

  • delusions and hallucinations

People who report feeling lonely are three times more likely to develop dementia. (Image via Getty Images)
People who report feeling lonely are three times more likely to develop dementia. (Image via Getty Images)

What causes dementia?

After the age of 85, nearly one in every four people has been diagnosed with dementia in Canada.

"Advancing age is the strongest known risk factor for dementia, but dementia is not a normal part of aging," the Alzheimer's Society of Canada report claimed.

There are several known modifiable risk factors of dementia, meaning there are behaviours or circumstances that can be changed or prevented to lower your risk. These include:

  • less education

  • hypertension

  • obesity

  • traumatic brain injury

  • depression

  • physical inactivity

  • diabetes

  • high alcohol intake

  • hearing loss

  • smoking

  • social isolation

  • air pollution

What are the new findings about dementia in Canada?

More than 650,000 Canadians are currently living with dementia — a number that's sharply increasing. By 2030, nearly one million Canadians will be diagnosed. "Its impact is and will continue to be felt across all borders, sectors and cultures," a report from the Alzheimer Society of Canada claimed.

Young onset dementia is also growing and "presents distinct challenges, which often lead to delayed diagnoses and difficulty in obtaining workplace accommodations." By 2050, it's estimated there could be more than 40,000 people under the age of 65 living with dementia in Canada.

In 2020, 61.8 per cent of Canadians living with dementia were women, and more than half of care partners were also women, emphasizing the disproportionate burden placed on female caregivers.

The report highlights demographic disparities, with specific projections for some communities in Canada:

  • Indigenous ancestry: Anticipated to increase by 273 per cent, from 10,800 to 40,300 by 2050

  • Asian origin: One in four people developing dementia expected to be of Asian origin by 2050

  • African ancestry: A projected 507 per cent increase from 4,800 in 2020 to over 29,100 in 2050

  • Latin, Central and South American ancestry: A forecasted 434 per cent increase from 3,500 in 2020 to over 18,500 in 2050

"Developing a more thorough understanding of social conditions, stress and brain health can lead to enhanced dementia risk reduction strategies across Indigenous communities and other marginalized populations affected by racism in Canada," the report suggested, adding the impact of racism on stress levels cannot be ignored.

Senior woman with cat (Image via Getty Images)
Studies have shown that cats help with verbal fluency. (Image via Getty Images)

How can I support those living with dementia?

The Alzheimer Society of Canada stressed the importance of dismantling stigma, discrimination and stereotypes surrounding dementia.

Natasha Jacobs, advisory group lead for the Alzheimer Society of Canada, told Yahoo Canada not much has been proven to slow the progression of dementia, but living a healthy life can reduce your risks. "Making sure to live a very healthy lifestyle and making sure to do things that are increasing your brain health every day is always going to give you a better chance at life, to hopefully not developed dementia."

Grappling with symptoms in dementia can be frustrating for both the diagnosed person and their caregiver, especially when it comes to romantic partners. Jacobs said changes in moods and behaviour can be difficult to process.

"Your partner may obviously seem a lot different than you're used to, and your conversation — the pace and how your chatting with each other — will change."

Daily rituals, such as walks and intimate dinners at home, become essential in maintaining emotional and physical connections when it comes to dementia. Jacobs said it's about "continuing to care for the person for who they are still, and who they once were," adding it's about moving forward with love and care.

Jacobs offered practical advice, emphasizing the importance of maintaining routines, reaching out for help and planning for the future. "Meeting your partner where they are and leading with love" becomes a guiding principle, with Jacobs recommending open conversations about role changes and involving a care team early in the process.

The Alzheimer Society of Canada has a long list of resources available on what to expect from dementia, how to handle certain behaviours and more for caregivers and those living with dementia.

As Canada faces a looming dementia crisis, the findings from the January 2024 study serve as a wake-up call. Urgent, comprehensive efforts are needed to address the rising rates, adapt care strategies and foster inclusivity in dementia support.

The Alzheimer Society of Canada's National Strategy is a step in the right direction, but collective action is imperative to transform the landscape of dementia care and research.

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