People Who Care For Others Live Longer

In Patient Care

The old adage, “What Goes Around Comes Around” apparently applies to older people who help care for other – they live longer!

A new study conducted by collaborating researchers from the University of Basel, Edith Cowan University, the University of Western Australia, the Humboldt University of Berlin, and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin believes it has demonstrated a link between care-giving and the mortality of the carers themselves. It seems older people who help other live longer!

The study concluded that grandparents who help with looking after their grandchildren on average live longer than those grandparents who do not. The study looked at survival rates of a sample of 500 people aged 70 to 103 years, using data collected between 1990 and 2009 provided by the Berlin Ageing Study.

In contrast to previous studies, the data set excluded grandparents who were primary or custodial caregivers, focusing instead on comparing grandparents who provided occasional childcare with grandparents who did not. The researchers also assessed older, childless adults who provided care for others in their social network.

Positive Effects of Care-giving

The research team believes, based on the study findings that care-giving can have a positive effect on the mortality of the carers. Of the sample, half the grandparents who provided childcare were still alive ten years after the initial 1990 interview. The same held true for adult carers without grandchildren who helped their children in some way. By comparison, approximately half those who were not active carers died within five years.

Wider Social Implications

Preliminary findings also indicate this positive care-giving effect seems to work on groups outside the family unit. Society as a whole could benefit from childless adults providing support for others. On the surface, the evidence appears telling, half of the adult helpers lived for a further seven years, while non-helpers lived for only another four years on average.

However, There Is A Catch

Ralph Hertwig, Director of the Centre for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development does not see care-giving as an automatic pass card to the fountain of youth, “Helping shouldn’t be misunderstood as a panacea for a longer life,” Hertwig conceded. He went on to add, “A moderate level of care-giving involvement does seem to have positive effects on health. But previous studies have shown that more intense involvement causes stress, which has negative effects on physical and mental health.”

Conclusion

Currently, the researchers see prosocial behavior as anchored originally in the family unit. First author Sonja Hilbrand, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Basel expanded on their thinking, “It seems plausible that the development of parents’ and grandparents’ pro-social behaviour toward their kin left its imprint on the human body in terms of a neural and hormonal system that subsequently laid the foundation for the evolution of cooperation and altruistic behaviour towards non-kin.”

Note On Research Structure

As it is unusual for German and Swiss grandparents to take custodial care of their grandchildren, primary and custodial caregivers were not included within the scope of the study.