Death from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia increased by 16 percent during the COVID pandemic, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. But people with pets, including those with cats, may be protected from cognitive decline.
Investigators from the Universities of Michigan and Florida made the finding when they combed through data on almost 1,400 people participating in a research project called the Health and Retirement Study. All the study subjects were 50-plus.
After looking at scores over time that showed how well the people did on such tasks as noun recall, subtraction, and counting backwards, they found that cognitive deficits came on significantly more slowly among pet owners. The association was strongest for people who had had their pets for at least 5 years.
The findings show an association rather than prove cause and effect, but warding off dementia via a good relationship with a pet is biologically plausible. Stress can negatively affect cognitive function — but having a cat who likes to come over and purr on your lap can be a means of reducing stress. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) makes that very point when it says that studies have shown the bond between people and their pets has been linked to decreased feelings of loneliness and anxiety, and even to decreased symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Cats and heart health
The CDC also says that having a pet can decrease blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglycerides, all things associated with heart disease. But can cat ownership actually reduce the rate of heart disease death?
Research suggests it can. A study of 4,000-plus people published some years ago in the Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology found that those who had had cats in the past were almost 40 percent less likely to die of a heart attack over a 20-year period than those who had been cat-less. The researchers in that study, too, point to reduced stress as a potential health-enhancing factor.
Heart disease, like dementia, involves the vascular system. In that way, it’s not surprising that the two illnesses seem impacted by cat ownership.