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Owning a pet can help keep our brains sharp as we age

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Posted at 12:23 PM, Mar 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-11 13:23:28-05

DENVER, Colo. — We've heard about the health benefits of owning a pet, like reducing stress or dropping your blood pressure. However, new research found pets can have an even greater benefit to our brains as we age.

Bob and Grace Nelson didn’t plan to adopt 9-year-old Winston. Their daughter surprised them with the four-legged delivery.

“She said, ‘This is something that you need to have,’ so Winston then showed up at our doorstep,” said Bob Nelson with a smile.

They’ve given him a home, but the Nelsons didn’t realize all that Winston would give in return.

“It's companionship, and also, you know, having somebody at home all the time. He's always there. He fills the house up,” said Grace Nelson.

But, Winston’s companionship offers Bob and Grace more than happiness; it likely brings them better health.

“I deliver papers for the local community paper, and he goes along with me just to walk, and he gets me out, which is what is important to me. Otherwise, sometimes you don't do that,” Bob Nelson said.

All those small walks add up. Researchers at the University of Michigan studied cognitive skills in adults over 65, measuring brain function through memory and math tests.

They found seniors who owned pets scored better over time on cognitive tests than those without pets, meaning pet owners’ brains stayed sharper for longer.

They found the mental benefits increased for people who owned their pets for five years or more. Slowing cognitive decline can mean seniors become less forgetful and stay more active and more aware as they age. Researchers said this can be because the chemicals that cause stress speed up mental decline—and pets can be a stress buffer.

Also, pets encourage exercise and socializing, which can help keep inflammation low and blood flow to the brain high. These factors can contribute to a healthier heart and brain.

“It engages with other people, and that's, I think, important because I think it's very easy for people our age to get isolated,” said Grace Nelson. “I think that's a big thing that he has really helped us not feel so isolated.”

Karen Martiny runs the Animal Rescue of the Rockies. She helped connect the Nelsons with Winston, and she sees time and time again how animals improve brain health, especially for older adopters.

“It staves off loneliness, which is a huge factor, because mental health decline, you know, it's increased with loneliness and depression,” said Martiny.

The Nelsons say they don’t need science to understand Winston may like to nap and snooze, but he’s helping a lot.

“I'm just glad that we got him. It's just nice to have him around,” said Grace Nelson.

If you’d like to look into adopting a pet, click HERE.