Study finds that pets may help combat loneliness for those who live alone

The association between living alone and depressive symptoms and the role of pet ownership. Picture: Unsplash/ Patrick Schätz.

The association between living alone and depressive symptoms and the role of pet ownership. Picture: Unsplash/ Patrick Schätz.

Published Jan 5, 2024


Around 300 million adults worldwide face the challenges of depression, with a stark impact visible among those aged 25 to 49, where depressive symptoms are a leading cause of health-related suffering.

Despite treatments such as antidepressants, many remain affected, with only one-third of patients managing to find relief.

This worrying trend points to a pressing need for researchers and policymakers to double down on efforts to combat this global health issue.

A recent analysis involving 16 studies revealed that adults living by themselves have a higher chance — 44% to be precise — of experiencing depression, drawing attention to the way living situations can influence mental health.

The study's findings, titled "The association between living alone and depressive symptoms and the role of pet ownership among Japanese workers," underscore that solitude is a noteworthy risk factor for depressive conditions.

In an effort to delve deeper into potential remedies, a new study in the journal “JAMA Network Open”, analysed how pets might ease cognitive woes for older individuals who live alone.

They examined over 7 900 adults over the age of 50, and discovered some good news.

The finding was that while pets didn't make a big difference for those living with family or friends, they significantly helped solitary seniors maintain their verbal thinking and memory.

And as age increased the risks for memory loss and cognitive decline -which can lead to devastating conditions like dementia becoming more common - it is also essential to look for ways to support the ageing population.

This is particularly as experts argue that by 2050, the affected number is expected to leap from 57 million today to 153 million.

This trajectory poses not just a health challenge, but also a looming financial and emotional strain on individuals, caretakers, and health systems alike.

Meanwhile, the unfortunate truth is that there's no cure for cognitive or neuro-degenerative diseases at this point.

But research into modifiable lifestyle factors might just shine a light on how to slow these naturally occurring declines. One promising direction is investigating the potential benefits of having pets, particularly for the elderly who live alone.

Our modern way of life and preference for small family units also means more people end up living by themselves, with the US and UK seeing close to 30% of their adults in single-person homes.

These individuals face almost double the risk of cognitive decline compared to those living with others.

Though records show living alone can be linked to heightened loneliness and brain health risks, the idea of pet ownership as a buffer against these issues is gaining traction.

And while some studies have shared mixed results, the connection between having a pet and reduced cognitive decline offers a glimmer of hope.

The main biological benefits pets generously give us include relieving stress, lowering heart rates and blood pressure.

They also help us become more physically active, which directly reduces the risk of mortality.

Pets also helping their owners cope with physical and emotional situations, including pain.

By providing companionship and unconditional love, pets also help fight depression, improve our mood and outlook, facilitate healing, increase resiliency, and provide a distraction from life’s hardships.

Research has even shown that dog and cat owners laugh more daily than people without pets.

The inability to leave the house is also a common symptom of loneliness, so having to walk a dog once or twice daily encourages outside physical fitness, lowers rates of obesity, and increases the frequency and likelihood of real-life human-human interactions.

Having a dog is also often the ultimate conversation starter, igniting connections, and thus reducing feelings of social isolation.

In addition staying home with a cat, rabbit, or any other furry or feathered friend also offers a degree of companionship and interaction, including fulfilling daily routines, which can all help support and manage long-term mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

Establishing the benefits of owning a furry friend (or several pets) could present a relatively cost-effective long-term solution to promote healthy ageing among the growing population of lonely elderly.

Living alone was significantly associated with a higher prevalence of depressive symptoms. The association was rather stronger among individuals, compared to those without them.