Researchers from Edith Cowan University (ECU), Perth and the University of Basel, Switzerland analysed data collected as part of the longitudinal Berlin Aging Study.
They found half of the grandparents who provided occasional care for their grandchildren or other members of the community lived for about five additional years after first being interviewed for the research.
Half of the grandparents who did not provide childcare died within the first five years after the initial interview.
“This research shows the positive link between caregiving and a longer lifespan in older people however we can only speculate as to why,” says Dr David Coall from ECU’s School of Medical and Health Sciences.
“Previous research points to helping behaviour as a stress buffer which involves, for example, the hormone oxytocin which can strengthen bonding between people,” he says. “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.”
The research showed the benefits of caring extended beyond grandchildren, with older people who cared for their own adult children or other members of the community showing the same increase in longevity.
However there can be too much of a good thing. Dr Coall’s research group also found negative physical and mental health impacts among grandparents who care fulltime for their grandchildren.
“There is no magic bullet amount of caregiving which is best to boost longevity,” says Dr Coall. “It is very important that every individual decides for themselves what ‘moderate amounts of help’ means.”
“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.”
Headed up by Sonja Hilbrand from the University of Basel, the study analysed data collected from more than 500 people aged between 70 and 103 years of age collected between 1990 and 2009.
Findings from the study were published late last year in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour.