These days, America is definitely “graying.” The Census Bureau estimates that the elderly will collectively outnumber children in the United States by 2035, and with that will come a big jump in the number of people affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia.
But the rising number of retirees could be a good thing, especially for their children who are working long hours. A Census Bureau report from 2011 found that of the American children under the age of 5, grandparents were the primary caregivers for about 24 percent.
And according to a study conducted with older women, taking care of grandkids isn’t just a godsend for busy working adults; it can also keep grandparents’ minds sharp and reduce dementia.
Noting that keeping socially active and engaged has been linked with better overall health, the study, which was published in the journal Menopause, evaluated and tested if taking care of children had any effect on cognitive skills in particular.
Examining a fairly small cohort of 186 postmenopausal women in Australia, the authors found that some interaction with grandchildren was beneficial. “The data suggest that the highest cognitive performance is demonstrated by postmenopausal women who spend 1 day/week minding grandchildren,” they stated.
What makes caring for children in a limited capacity so beneficial? Dr. Diana Kerwin of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas told KTVT, “When we interact with another human being, our brain cells fire rapidly.” Kerwin explained that the complex skills involved in human interaction are much more than is required for doing crossword puzzles or sitting in front of the TV.
The women in the study ranged from age 57 to 68. The results should be good news for baby boomers who are increasingly called up to do childcare duty.
The study in Menopause found that taking care of grandkids one day a week not only helped older women with symbolic and math skills but also assisted with verbal abilities. This might come as no surprise to those who interact with talkative toddlers on a regular basis.
While more research needs to be done on grandparenting and Alzheimer’s specifically, it is clear that getting involved with grandchildren is a great way for older people to stay healthy. A study in the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior on elderly people in Europe (from ages 70 to 100) found that involvement with childcare led to lower mortality levels.
What might be more surprising, the study found that “the effect of caregiving extended to non-grandparents and to childless older adults who helped beyond their families.” This study looked at men and women, showing that grandpas can also benefit from the same mechanisms.
Study author Sonja Hillbrand told Reuters, “This link could be a mechanism deeply rooted in our evolutionary past when help with childcare was crucial for the survival of the human species.”
One commonality for all studies, though, is that too much responsibility for children can stress grandparents out and make their health outcomes worse. The study in Menopause found that if older women were involved in childcare five days a week, their performance on cognitive skills tests went down.
So it seems like a moderate amount of childcare experience can be great for grandparents, but having to be “parents” all over again is too tiring and stressful.
As Sonja Hilbrand explained to Reuters, “as long as you do not feel stressed about the intensity of help you provide you may be doing something good for others as well as for yourself.” Good news for grandparents—and of course their grandkids, alike.