Ken McLeod doesn’t need a scientific study to tell him the benefits of owning a pet. The sprightly 71-year-old hasn’t been without a dog in the house for more than 12 months since his dad first brought a dog home when he was six months old. Now he’s ‘parenting’ dog number eleven, an American ‘Staffy’ named Tia he and his wife Jen adopted from the Animal Welfare League Queensland Rehoming Centre at West Ipswich.
McLeod volunteers at the centre one day a week and when Tia arrived it was love at first sight and now they are inseparable. Tia has even proven herself to be a good camping dog when the McLeods get away on their camping holidays.
It comes as no surprise to McLeod that a new study has added to the building evidence that owning a pet has a positive effect on ageing.
In the latest study, called the Pet Ownership, Living Alone, and Cognitive Decline Among Adults 50 Years and Older and published by JAMA, researchers set out to determine whether pet ownership is associated with cognitive decline in older adults, and in particular how pet ownership (for example, raising cats or dogs) can reduce the rate of cognitive decline in people living alone. The researchers pointed out that older people living alone are at high risk of developing dementia and that the proportion of older people living alone is on the rise.
They tested almost 8000 people aged 50 and above for verbal memory and verbal fluency, skills that are essential to performing daily tasks and remaining independent as people get older, to assess their overall verbal cognition then calculated a composite score.
The study found that pet ownership was associated with slower rates of decline in verbal memory and verbal fluency among individuals living alone, but not among those living with others, and that pet ownership completely offset the associations between living alone and decline in verbal memory, verbal fluency, and composite verbal cognition.
The researchers noted that pet owners living alone did not show faster rates of decline than pet owners living with others.
“These findings suggest that pet ownership might be beneficial for verbal memory and verbal fluency among older adults living alone. Pet ownership is a simple change to make for a person living alone to make and randomised clinical trials should explore whether pet ownership can slow the rate of cognitive decline, especially in older adults living alone. If randomised clinical trials confirm our findings, pet ownership may help in slowing cognitive decline and preventing dementia,” researchers said.
Although Ken McLeod doesn’t live alone, as passionate dog owner he sees the benefits for a single person to have a furry friend. Tia has become his constant companion and follows him everywhere. “If you treat a dog right they will give you unconditional love in return and they will be a good mate,” he said. “For a lonely person they not only become a good companion, they give you purpose. Over and above what I normally do each day I get up every morning and go for a walk with Tia – anything from about two kilometres to 6km a day – and that exercise is good for us both,” he said.