Those daily walks you take with your dog can lower the risk of dementia for both of you — with recent studies offering a fascinating glimpse into the parallels between human and canine health.
Dogs develop dementia just like people do, with their cognitive decline also leading to memory problems, disorientation, behavior changes and disrupted sleep, a recent study in Nature Scientific Reports noted.
When the authors analyzed data for more than 15,000 dogs, one of the greatest risk factors for canine dementia — second only to age — was lack of exercise. The findings come as separate research shows walking and other activities can protect brain health in humans.
“The evidence is clear: Being active is better for your health in a variety of ways than being inactive. That’s going to be true for your dog as well,” Matt Kaeberlein, study co-author and co-director of the Dog Aging Project at the University of Washington in Seattle, tells TODAY.com.
“One very simple lesson is: Take your dog for more walks… it would be good for you and your dog. This (study) just further supports the critically important role that exercise and activity play in a healthy lifestyle, both in dogs and in humans.”
Symptoms of dementia in dogs
The Dog Aging Project seeks to understand how genes, lifestyle and environment influence aging — for both pets and people — and extend their healthy years.
Unlike mice, rats or other animals, companion dogs are especially good study subjects for this because they live with humans, so they share pretty much every aspect of our environment, Kaeberlein says. They also age very rapidly compared to people — about seven times faster — which means researchers can study their life stages across a much shorter time frame than human lives, he adds.
The study involved a nationwide sample of 15,019 companion dogs enrolled in the project. Their owners provided information about their dog’s age, sex, breed, activity level and health status. They also filled out a survey about their dog’s behavior, which was designed to detect dementia. For example, they reported whether their pet was pacing, walking into walls or failing to recognize familiar people.
Other common symptoms include emotional detachment from the family, where the dog starts to spend a lot of time by itself, and getting lost in the house, Kaeberlein says.
“They’ll get stuck in a corner. They’ll just stare. What that will look like to the owners is the dog is just staring at the wall,” he adds. “Sometimes, they get stuck in furniture. That’s a very common sign of dementia, especially in smaller dogs.”
Exercise impacts the biology of aging
When researchers analyzed the data, they found 1.4% of dogs in the study were classified as having canine cognitive dysfunction — the dog version of dementia.
The odds of the condition increased 52% with each additional year of a dog’s age, they reported. Increasing age is also the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias in humans, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Among dogs of the same age, health status, breed type and sterilization status, the odds of dementia were six times higher in dogs that were not active compared to those who were very active, the study found.
“It makes sense,” says Kaeberlein, who is also director of the Healthy Aging and Longevity Research Institute at the University of Washington.
“This is very similar to what we see in humans, where there’s very, very good evidence that activity and exercise are protective for dementia and other age-related diseases.”
Exercise is probably positively impacting the biology of aging, he adds. It may reduce inflammation and increase plasticity in the brain, the study noted. Very active dogs are also less likely to be obese, which may impact dementia risk, Kaeberlein adds.
Humans and their furry companions both get a health boost
Earlier this year, a separate study published in JAMA Neurology found people who walk 10,000 steps a day can cut the risk of dementia in half. That’s the optimal number of steps, but it doesn’t even take that much walking to make a difference — just 4,000 daily steps can reduce dementia risk by a quarter, researchers found.
Since “4,000 steps per day is less intimidating than 10,000 for many, it may be a powerful message to motivate the most inactive and less fit individuals,” the study’s first author, Borja del Pozo Cruz, an adjunct associate professor at Southern Denmark University and a senior researcher in health at the University of Cadiz in Cadiz, Spain, previously told TODAY.com.
The findings — based on data from more than 78,000 adults living in the UK — also showed half an hour of walking at a brisk pace was associated with a 62% decline in the risk of dementia.
Another report, published in Neurology this year, found taking part in physical activities such as walking, running, swimming, bicycling, using exercise machines, playing sports, yoga and dancing, was associated with a 17% reduction in dementia risk.