"Grandparents who babysit their grandchildren tend to live longer than seniors who do not care for other people, a study has found," the Mail Online reports.
Researchers found grandparent babysitters had a 37% lower mortality risk than adults of the same age with no caring responsibilities.
The study included around 500 adults from the Berlin Aging Study (BASE) – a database of people aged 70 or older living in the former West Berlin.
It found that all participants involved in providing care or help to grandchildren had a reduced risk of dying during study follow-up than non-helpers. Similar positive effects were also found for participants who help support adult children and others in their social network.
But the study does have limitations, the main one being that it can't prove cause and effect.
Further research would be needed to find out what causes the increased life expectancy of caregivers. The researchers offer a number of explanations, such as spending time with grandchildren is a good way for older people to have a sense of purpose, while keeping them physically and mentally active.
Read more about how helping others may help improve your own wellbeing.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Basel, University of Western Australia, and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. Funding was provided by the Max Planck Society, Free University of Berlin, German Federal Ministry for Research and Technology, German Federal Ministry for Family, Senior Citizens, Women, and Youth, and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences' Research Group on Aging and Societal development.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Evolution and Human Behavior.
The study has been reported accurately in the Mail Online with a number of possible explanations given for the findings, as suggested by the research team. However, the website does not describe any of the research's limitations.
What kind of research was this?
This was a prospective cohort study which aimed to assess whether caregiving by grandparents within and beyond the family is associated with a longer life expectancy.
There is a growing body of research indicating that being a grandparent may be beneficial for a person's health, with possible positive effects on cognitive function and wellbeing.
However, other research has found possible negative effects on health, particularly when the grandparents have full-time custody of the children.
This research aimed to explore the effects of being a grandparent, looking at mortality specifically.
Attempts were made by the researchers to control for possible confounding factors. However, this can never be completely accurate as there may be a additional factors they haven't taken into account.
Also, as data was collected every two years by interview it may be subject to recall bias.
What did the research involve?
The researchers looked at data from the Berlin Aging Study (BASE). They aimed to investigate the effect of caregiving on mortality, using information on a range of health and social conditions obtained from the participants as well as information provided about their children and grandchildren.
The population in the BASE database was randomly selected from the West Berlin registration office records. Participants completed interviews and medical tests at their homes, doctors' practices and hospitals which were repeated at two yearly intervals between 1990 and 2009.
Participants were asked about their frequency of caregiving in the last 12 months. Caregiving was defined as looking after or doing something with a grandchild without the parents being present. This was then scored on a seven point scale, from 1 (never) to 7 (every day).
People who weren't grandparents were coded as "never". The sample did not include any primary caregivers who had full custody of the grandchildren.
The time to death following the interview was recorded and used as a measure for mortality.
Statistical analyses were performed to compare the life expectancy of caregiving grandparents, non-caregiving grandparents, and non-grandparents. The analysis was controlled for physical health, age, socioeconomic status and various characteristics of the children and grandchildren.
What were the basic results?
The 516 participants from the dataset were categorised as follows:
- caregiving grandparents (80)
- non-caregiving grandparents (232)
- non-grandparents (204)
After adjustment for confounders, caregiving grandparents had a 37% lower risk of death than non-caregiving grandparents (hazard ratio [HR] 0.63, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.41 to 0.96). An identical 37% risk reduction in mortality was found when comparing caregiving grandparents with non-grandparents.
There was no difference in risk of death between non-grandparents and non-caregiving grandparents (HR 0.90, 95% CI 0.78 to 1.15).
When looking at non-grandparents specifically, those who provided instrumental help to their adult children had 57% lower risk of death (HR 0.43, 95% CI 0.29 to 0.62) than parents who did not help their adult children.
For interviewed participants who were childless, those who reported giving support to others had 60% lower risk of death than those who did not report supporting others (HR 0.40, 95% CI 0.31 to 0.54).
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers conclude: "All helper groups – grandparents who gave care to their grandchildren; parents who provided instrumental help to adult children; and childless participants who helped others in their social network – had higher survival probabilities than the respective non-helper group. This pattern suggests that there is a link not only between helping and beneficial health effects, but also between helping and mortality, and specifically between grandparental caregiving and mortality".
This prospective cohort study aimed to assess whether caregiving by grandparents within and beyond the family is associated with a longer life expectancy.
The researchers found that all participants involved in care of grandchildren, providing help to adult children and / or those helping others in their social network had a lower risk of dying during follow-up than non-helpers.
However, the study does have some limitations:
- observational studies are not able to prove cause and effect. We can't say from these findings that the provision of care is directly responsible for a longer life
- the researchers have attempted to adjust for a number of health and socio-demographic factors that could be influencing the results. But the number of variables that could be having an effect is potentially vast. Accounting for all contributing factors may have altered the findings
- the cause of death and the participants' physical and mental health and wellbeing have not been explored in great depth
- there is a risk of recall bias as data was collected during two yearly interviews and participants may not accurately remember the level of care provided
- this is a relatively small sample of people – and they are also all from one region of Germany. Other results may be obtained with a different sample
This study provides some evidence for a link between caregiving and increased life expectancy, however it is not able to pinpoint what causes the increase. Further research would be required to confirm this.
However, spending time with grandchildren and helping friends and family members arguably gives people a sense of purpose, and helps keep them physically and mentally active.
There are all sorts of ways you can help others.
Read more about the different opportunities available for volunteering.
Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Website
Links to the headlines
Mail Online, 2 January 2017
Links to the science
Evolution and Human Behavior. Published online December 5 2016