Having a dog can reduce the risk of developing dementia in old age, according to research carried out in Japan.
A four-year study by the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute for Geriatrics and Gerontology monitored the well-being of nearly 12,000 residents of the city over the age of 65 and concluded that dog-owners were 40 per cent less likely to get dementia than those without a dog.
The research, published in the December edition of Preventive Medicine Reports, was the first time that scientists had established a clear link between owning a dog and the onset of dementia, the institute said.
The research team compared the mental health of elderly people who had never had a dog with those who did and therefore exercised, making new connections with people as they walked their pets, said Dr Yu Taniguchi, the lead author of the study.
“Having a dog enabled owners to habitually take exercise and avoid social isolation and these were the two key factors in people having a much lower risk of developing dementia,” Dr Taniguchi said.
‘Habit of physical activity’
The likelihood of a person developing dementia was higher if they owned a dog but did not take regular exercise and were socially isolated, he said, but the risk was still lower than someone without a dog at home who did not exercise or have opportunities to meet other people.
The research factored in other variables, including gender, marital status, educational level, income and history of illness, as well as the amount of exercise they took regardless of whether they had a pet or not. The average age of the 11,914 people who took part in the study was 74.2 years and 51.5 per cent of them were female.
“Having a dog effectively requires people to get into the habit of physical activity and that makes it much more likely that they will then have interactions and socialise with other people,” said Dr Taniguchi.
The study also examined links between pet cats and the onset of dementia, but found that having a feline companion had no discernible impact on the mental well-being of an owner.
Dr Taniguchi, who has a Jack Russell terrier, ascribes this to the fact that owners do not walk their cats and they do not bring people together socially in the way that dogs do.
He added that he was not surprised by the group’s findings, as earlier research had identified the potential health benefits of pets.
Caring for either a cat or dog at home has been linked to reduced frailty in old age, slowed cognitive decline, delayed onset of disabilities and death from all causes, he said.
Previous research also determined that dog-owners had better well-being than those with no pet during the coronavirus pandemic, a finding that is also likely linked to fewer opportunities to partake in exercise or meet other people in person.
Japan, with a population of 125 million, had some 7.1 million pet dogs in 2022, significantly fewer than the 13 million pet dogs in the UK, which has a population of 67.3 million.
The Age UK charity said studies have shown that people with pets typically have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, while animals improve the physical, emotional and social well-being of older people.
There are a number of private organisations across the UK that take pets into care homes, schools, facilities for people with disabilities and prisons to provide people with comfort and stimulation.