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Grandparents Live Longer When Helping Grandchildren

March 20 2017 - by Dr. Derrick Aarons

As leaders in society, we ought to pass on valuable health information to our staff, family members, and to as many persons as possible within our sphere of influence. We know that eating right and exercising for 30 minutes each day consistently can help us to live longer, irrespective of our age.   We know we should avoid fried foods and sugary drinks, and eat more ground provisions and more fruits and vegetables.  We should avoid fat, salt and salt-preserved foods, and eat more lean meats, with a greater preference for fish or chicken (baked or broiled, not fried).  We should also seek to go walking for at least 10 minutes after every meal.  These approaches have been shown to benefit our health and longevity.  

However, what we may not know is that care-giving may also add length to our lives.   Care-giving is the providing of assistance to another person who may be ill, disabled, or needing help with their daily activities.  Often times, caregivers are needed for children and the elderly.

Grandparents as Care-Givers

Research published in the December edition of the journal Evolution and Human Behavior concluded that grandparents who helped out occasionally with child care or who provided support to others in their community tend to live longer than seniors who do not care for other people. The data came from the Berlin Aging study in Germany, and was conducted by researchers from the University of Basel in Switzerland.   It involved more than 500 persons over the age of 70 years.    The research participants completed interviews and medical tests every two years for a period of two decades, between 1990 and 2009.

Since having full-time custody of grand-children can produce negative effects on the health of seniors, the researchers did not include any grandparents who were the primary caregivers for their grandchildren.   Instead, the researchers compared seniors who cared for grandchildren occasionally with seniors who provided support for non-family members such as friends or neighbours, and seniors who did not provide any care to other people.

After doing the statistical adjustments for the grandparents’ age and general state of health, the researchers found that the risk of dying over a 20-year period was actually one-third lower for those grandparents who cared for their grandchildren, when compared with grandparents who did not provide any child care.   Further, over one-half of the grandparents who cared for grandchildren were still alive 10 years after the initial interview.    The same was true for participants who did not have grandchildren but supported their adult children in some way, such as helping with housework.

Some Seniors Die Earlier

In contrast, about half of the participants who did not help others died within 5 years of the start of the study.   Also, care-giving was linked with longer life even when the recipient of the care was not a relative.    Half of all child-less seniors who provided support to friends and neighbours were alive 7 years after the study began, whereas non-helpers lived for only four more years on average. 

On the other hand, having no contact at all with grandchildren can negatively impact the health of grandparents, the researchers reported.   The lead author postulated that the latter effect could be linked to a mechanism deeply rooted in our evolutionary past when help with child care was crucial for the survival of the human species.   

Other research scientists proffered that care-giving may give caregivers a purpose in life because these caregivers may feel useful in the service of others and of the society. In fact, care-giving may be thought of as an activity that keeps caregivers physically and mentally active, and previous research studies suggest that care-giving may improve cognitive functioning (the process of perception, memory, judgement, and reasoning), and mental and physical health. 

Other Beneficial Activities

On the other hand, if grandparents have too many caring responsibilities, it can take away from other personally beneficial activities like working, being in social clubs, or volunteer work.   Hence, adult children should always take into consideration their parents’ needs, willingness, and desires, and negotiate with them on the timing as well as the amount of child-care. 

Every individual should decide for himself or herself what a ‘moderate amount of help’ means, and as long as the person does not feel stressed about the intensity of the help he or she provides, then that person may be doing something good for others as well as for himself or herself. We should all be concerned, not only about improving our own health and longevity, but also that of our family and friends.  Consequently, we should  spread the knowledge that has been gained through research, as we seek to make this world a better place now and in the future.

 

Derrick Aarons MD, PhD is a consultant bioethicist/family physician, a specialist in ethical issues in medicine, the life sciences and research, and is the Ethicist at the Caribbean Public Health Agency – CARPHA. (The views expressed here are not written on behalf of CARPHA)

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