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Mature Focus: Caregiving benefits the giver

Older people who help, care for and support others are also potentially helping themselves live longer. New international research has found that grandparents who care for their grandchildren, on average, live longer than grandparents who do not. The researchers analyzed survival data on more than 500 people between the ages of 70 and 103, using data from the Berlin Aging Study collected between 1990 and 2009.

Not included in the study were grandparents who were primary or custodial caregivers; previous research has shown this more intense level of involvement causes stress, which has negative effects on physical and mental health. Instead, the researchers included grandparents who provided occasional childcare with grandparents who did not. They also studied older adults who did not have children or grandchildren, but who provided care for others in their social networks.

The data showed that occasional caregiving or helping can result in longer lives for seniors who provide care. Half of the grandparents who occasionally took care of their grandchildren were still alive about ten years after the first interview in 1990. The same was true of participants who did not have grandchildren, but who supported their children in other ways. By contrast, about half of those who did not help others died within just five years.

The researchers also found that the positive effects of caregiving on lifespan extended beyond the immediate family. Their analysis showed that childless older adults who provided others with support also lived longer overall. Half of these helpers lived for another seven years, whereas non-helpers on average lived for another four years.

“Helping shouldn’t be misunderstood as a panacea for a longer life,” said Ralph Hertwig, Director of the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. “But a moderate level of caregiving involvement does seem to have positive effects on health.”

The study was published in Evolution and Human Behavior.

Seniors who help others may be helping themselves to a longer life.

Grandparents who care for their grandchildren may live longer than those who do not.

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