Grandparents who help to care or provide support to others in their community tend to live longer than seniors who do not care for other people, according to a study from Berlin, Germany.
Having full-time custody of grandchildren can have a negative effect on health, but occasionally help may be useful for seniors, the researchers write in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.
“They have no contact with the grandchildren can have negative consequences for the health of the grandparents,” said lead author Sonja Hilbrand, doctoral student in the department of psychology at the University of Basel in Switzerland.
“This link can be a mechanism that is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past as assistance with childcare is crucial for the survival of the human species,” Hilbrand told Reuters Health by e-mail.
The findings are derived from the data of more than 500 people older than 70 years in the Berlin Aging Study.
The participants completed interviews and medical examinations every two years between 1990 and 2009.
The researchers have no grandparents who are the primary caregivers for their grandchildren, only those who cared for the grandchildren occasionally.
The research team compared this group with seniors that support for non-relatives, such as friends or neighbors, and the elderly who don’t care for other people.
Overall, after accounting for grandpa and grandma’s age and general state of health, the risk of death over a period of 20 years is one-third lower for grandparents who cared for their grandchildren, compared to grandparents who are not in child care.
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Half of the grandparents who cared for grandchildren were still alive ten years after the first interview. The same is true for participants who have no grandchildren, but also supported their adult children in some way, such as helping in the household.
In contrast, approximately half of the participants who do not help others died within five years after the start of the study.
Caregiving is associated with a longer life, even if the care-receiver was not a family member. Half of all childless seniors who provided support to friends or neighbors lived for seven years after the study began, whereas non-helpers lived four years on the average.
“Informal care can give caregivers a purpose of life, because health care providers can make themselves useful for the others and for the society,” said Bruno Arpino, associate professor at the universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, who was not involved in the study.
“Caregiving can be considered as an activity that is (remains) the caregivers are physically and mentally active,” Arpino said by e-mail, adding that previous studies suggest that the provision of care can improve cognitive functioning, physical and mental health.
Arpino noted that caregiving is not the only activity that will improve health, and too many responsibilities can take away from other beneficial activities, such as work, social clubs, or volunteering.
“Children need to take (fee) their parents’ needs, the willingness and desires and agree with them about the timing and amount of child care,” Arpino proposed.
“It is very important that each individual decides for him/herself, what ‘moderate amounts of help’ means,” Hilbrand said, adding, “as long as you don’t feel stressed about the intensity of the help that you provided you may be doing something good for others and for yourself.”