Looking for an extra incentive to spend some quality time with your grandchildren? Try telling their parents it could extend your life.
A growing body of research supports the idea that grandparents who babysit a grandchild live longer, so parents with young kids can take heart that their parents and their kids are getting benefits from babysitting time together.
Considerable spoke exclusively with Dr. David Coall, senior lecturer at Edith Cowan University, and a co-author of an influential 2017 peer-reviewed study that found a link between grandparental caregiving and mortality.
Dr. Coall was enthusiastic about the progress in this particular area of exploration. “This is a very exciting time to be involved in this research field,” he said. “As the evidence builds, we hope to be able to make useful recommendations for healthy living.”
He then provided some updates in the field and highlighted further connections that still need to be made.
The 2017 study Dr. Coall co-authored analyzed date from the Berlin Aging Study (BASE), which tracked the health and social conditions of over 500 participants in Berlin between 1990 and 2009.
The BASE study was comprised of interviews and medical tests done in two-year intervals, and included a caregiving section in which respondents described the frequency with which they cared for a grandchild without the parents’ presence.
An important note: The study focused on grandparents who simply provided periodic babysitting, not primary caregiving for their grandchildren.
In fact, those primary caregivers were excluded from this sample: The physical and emotional challenges of stepping into the role of primary caregiver for a grandchild are distinct, the researchers reasoned.
Dr. Coall’s team found that caregiving grandparents had a 37% lower risk of death than non-caregiving grandparents. An identical 37% risk reduction in mortality was found when comparing caregiving grandparents with non-grandparents.
To put it another way, the risk of dying over a 20-year period was one-third lower for grandparents who provided some level of care for their grandchildren, as opposed to grandparents who provided no care at all.
According to Dr. Coall, “The obvious next question was, ‘Is that purely because healthier grandparents are more likely to babysit and live longer?’”
In August, 2017, the team used the same BASE data to distinguish whether grandparents were healthier due to babysitting, or if they were babysitting because they were already healthier and able to do so.
Dr. Coall summarized the results: “We found that health only accounted for 22% of the association between helping and longevity. Interestingly, a direct effect of babysitting on longevity still existed in the data. So, we continue to look for what could be making this link between helping and living longer.”
Dr. Coall told us that a number of longitudinal studies have examined whether babysitting is associated with a subsequent improvement in grandparental health, with mixed results.
The most recent study, a collaboration with researchers in Finland that came out earlier this month, examined whether someone who became a grandparent subsequently went on to enjoy improved health.
Dr. Coall noted that the research shows “a specific improvement in physical health, but not in emotional or mental health. Maybe this works through increased activity levels looking after grandchildren.”
Past studies have attempted to link grandparental caregiving with increased cognitive function, including lower risks of Alzheimer’s, as well as lower risk of depression.
These specific studies don’t correspond with Dr. Coall’s research, but overall there is a clear theme: babysitting a grandchild can provide important physical and emotional stimulation that can have long-term health-benefits.
And while further research needs to be done to prove a direct relationship between caregiving and longer life, enough evidence exists to confidently propose a weekly babysitting routine as a health-enhancer for grandparents.