Study Looks at Effect of Caring for Grandchildren on Menopausal Women

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Recently I had lunch with a friend who was about to be a new grandmother. She was really excited about the prospect of spoiling the baby, but had already laid down “the law” to the new parents. “I’m willing to take the new baby once a week but that’s it,” she said. “I’m not going to become your permanent babysitter.” My friend’s decision may have long-term repercussions not only for her relationship with her adult child and the newborn, but also for her own brain as she ages.

    A new Australian study sheds interesting light on this topic. In this effort, researchers evaluated the cognitive ability of 186 women who were between the ages of 57 and 68. These women took care of their grandchildren at least once a week and often more.

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    As part of this study, researchers assessed the participants’ cognitive abilities by using three tests. They also questioned the participants about their views on whether their adult children had been too demanding during the previous year.
    Interestingly, the researchers determined that grandmothers who took care of their grandchildren one day a week had better performance on two of the cognitive tests. In comparison, grandmothers who cared for their grandchildren on five or more days a week had significantly worse performance on the tests that looked at working memory and mental processing speed. These grandmothers also said they felt that their adult children had been much more demanding of their time.

    “We know that older women who are socially engaged have better cognitive function and a lower risk of developing dementia later, but too much of a good thing just might be bad,” said Dr. Margery Gass, who is the executive director of the North American Menopause Society. “Because grandmothering is such an important and common social role for postmenopausal women, we need to know more about its effects on their future health. This study is a good start.”

    Since I’ve been writing for HealthCentral’s Alzheimer’s site, I wanted to share my two cents because I found this to be an interesting study on many levels.
    First of all, I appreciate everyone who is a grandmother and who cares for their grandchildren. I know this is a very special relationship and I still treasure the memories of sitting next to my maternal grandmother as she pitted fresh cherries.

    With that said, I would suggest that caring for grandchildren – especially those who are very young – doesn’t provide the same level of mental stimulation as holding many types of jobs or participating in activities with other adults in which you have to carry on a conversation. While Dr. Gass suggests that social engagement is the key component in this study and that “too much of a good thing just might be bad,” I would suggest that the differences are caused more by maturity and age level. Having a conversation with the average of four-year-old isn’t as intellectually stimulating as having a conversation with an adult.

    And you need these more stimulating conversations as well as activities to exercise your brain, which potentially also can help protect you from the dementia. Therefore, if you are a grandmother who has the responsibility for your grandkids for most of the week, I’d encourage you to find ways to stretch your brain muscles. For instance, you could arrange play dates with the grandchildren and then use the time to pursue a hobby or an interest. Try to do things that are outside of your mental comfort zone, which can help you build new brain connections. For instance, if you are like me and really enjoy word play, crossword puzzles aren’t going to be as helpful in strengthening your brain. That’s why I keep trying to do Sudoku on the computer. I can almost feel my brain “cramping” as I try to figure out these puzzles, but I know that I’m using a different part of my brain.

  • I’d also encourage you to look for other opportunities to engage your brain. For instance, you can serve on a committee at church or help organize an upcoming event for a nonprofit that you support. These types of tasks tap into your brain’s executive function, which includes analysis, creative thinking, planning and juggling a to-do list.

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    I know HealthCentral community members are very proud grandmothers who love their grandkids dearly. That’s why it’s really important to take care of yourself through finding activities that are truly going to challenge you (and your brain). These activities can help make life more enjoyable and protect the brain’s ability to function so you can enjoy watching your grandchildren grow up.

    Primary Source for This Sharepost:

    North American Menopause Society. (2014). Grandmas stay sharp when they care for grandkids once a week.

Published On: April 14, 2014