(CNN) – Having a long-term pet companion may delay memory loss and other kinds of cognitive decline, a new study has found. Pet ownership was especially beneficial for working verbal memory, such as memorization of word lists, according to the preliminary research.
“To our knowledge, our study is the first to consider the effect of duration of pet ownership on cognitive health,” first author Jennifer Applebaum, a sociology doctoral candidate and National Institute of Health predoctoral fellow at University of Florida, told CNN in an email.
And it’s not just cats and dogs that can boost the brain. People in the study also cared for rabbits, hamsters, birds, fish and reptiles, Applebaum said, although “dogs were most prevalent, followed by cats.”
Owning household pets for five years or more produced the most benefit, delaying cognitive decline by 1.2 points over the six-year period of the study compared with the rate of decline in people without pets, said clinical neuroimmunologist Dr. Tiffany Braley, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan, via email.
“These findings provide early evidence to suggest that long-term pet ownership could be protective against cognitive decline,” said Braley, senior author of the study to be presented in April at the American Academy of Neurology’s 74th Annual Meeting.
Why did having pets for more than five years have the most positive impact? The study, which could only show an association, not a direct cause and effect between pet ownership and cognition, was unable to answer that question.
However, previous studies have pointed to the negative effects of stress on brain health, especially chronic stress, Braley said.
“Prior research has also identified associations between interactions with companion animals and physiological measures of stress reduction, including reductions in cortisol levels and blood pressure, which in the long term could have an impact on cognitive health,” she said.
There can also be a multitude of other brain benefits from pet ownership, such as social companionship and a sense of duty and purpose, experts say.
“Having a pet or multiple pets combines many core components of a brain-healthy lifestyle,” said Dr. Richard Isaacson, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic in the Center for Brain Health at Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine.
“Cognitive engagement, socialization, physical activity and having a sense of purpose can separately, or even more so in combination, address key modifiable risk factors for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease dementia,” said Isaacson, who was not involved in the study.
The study analyzed cognitive data on more than 1,300 adults who participated in the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative study tracking the lives of Americans age 50 and older.
Anyone with cognitive decline at the start of the research was excluded from the analysis. In the final sample, over 53% owned pets. Pet owners tended to be of higher socioeconomic status, which could also be a reason for the benefits: Experts say people with more income are more likely to visit doctors and take care of their health.
Any brain boost associated with owning pets over five years was “more prominent for Black adults, college-educated adults, and men,” the study said.
“More research is needed to explain these findings,” Applebaum said. Because previous research has been mostly among biased samples that consisted primarily of White women, “we are lacking sufficient information about men (and other genders) AND people of color, especially Black pet owners,” she said.
Does this mean you should run right out and get a pet if you’re an older adult interested in preserving your brain? Not necessarily, experts say. Studies have also shown that pet owners can be lonely, depressed and have chronic conditions that may make pet ownership a negative.
“We do not recommend pet ownership as a therapeutic intervention,” Applebaum said. “However, we do recommend that people who own pets be supported in keeping them via public policy and community partnerships.”
Abolishing pet fees on rental housing and providing free or low-cost vet services would go a long way toward helping pet owners keep their pets, “particularly in low-income communities and communities of color,” Applebaum said
Other ideas include providing foster or boarding support for people who are unexpectedly unavailable to care for their pets due to a health crisis.
“An unwanted separation from a pet can be devastating for a bonded owner, and marginalized populations are most at-risk of these unwanted outcomes,” she said.