Caregiving within and beyond the family is associated with lower mortality for the caregiver: A prospective study

Elsevier, Evolution and Human Behavior, Volume 38, May 2017
Hilbrand S., Coall D.A., Gerstorf D., Hertwig R.
Grandparenting has been proposed as an ultimate evolutionary mechanism that has contributed to the increase in human life expectancy (see the grandmother hypothesis). The neural and hormonal system – originally rooted in parenting and thus grandparenting – that is activated in the process of caregiving has been suggested as a potential proximate mechanism that promotes engagement in prosocial behavior towards kin and non-kin alike. Evidence and theory suggest that activating this caregiving system positively impacts health and may reduce the mortality of the helper. Although some studies have found grandparental care to have beneficial effects on grandparents’ health outcomes, most studies have focused on the detrimental health consequences of providing custodial care for grandchildren. Little is known about how non-custodial grandparental and other forms of caregiving relate to mortality hazards for the care provider. Using an evolutionary framework, we examined whether caregiving within and beyond the family is related to mortality in older adults. Survival analyses based on data from the Berlin Aging Study revealed that mortality hazards for grandparents who provided non-custodial childcare were 37% lower than for grandparents who did not provide childcare and for non-grandparents. These associations held after controlling for physical health, age, socioeconomic status and various characteristics of the children and grandchildren. Furthermore, the effect of caregiving extended to non-grandparents and to childless older adults who helped beyond their families. Potential ultimate and proximate mechanisms underlying these effects are discussed.