Grandmother baking with granddaugther

Grandparents: Could Babysitting Reduce Your Risk of Dementia?

Many grandparents are eager to take on babysitting duty in order to spend more time with the youngest members of their family. While being a grandparent can introduce a new sense of purpose and increase joy, a new study shows that caring for grandchildren at least once a week can also decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

The study, performed by researchers at The University of Melbourne in Australia, observed the cognitive function of over 180 women who babysit their grandchildren weekly. The results showed that grandmothers who spend one day a week caring for their grandchildren may have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disorders.

“The study highlights some of what we know about a ‘brain-healthy lifestyle’,” says Diana Kerwin, M.D., geriatrician and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas. “Babysitting and interacting with your grandkids means that you are likely more active, both physically and mentally.”

Kerwin, who is the director of the Texas Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders program at Texas Health Dallas, says taking care of a child stimulates more than just bonding; it stimulates parts of the brain and body that may be used less often as we get older.

“When you take care of a child, you often become the teacher and create more stimulating brain activities,” says Kerwin. “You are also likely to be more socially active, meeting new people and also interacting with family. You’re also likely walking more and are more physically active.”

There’s a large body of research which finds regular social interaction and engaging in brain-stimulating activities can help seniors stay mentally and physically healthy. One study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that older women and men who spend too much time apart from family members have a 26 percent higher risk of death during a seven-year period compared to those who are more socially engaged.

In the early 2000s, scientists discovered that inhabitants of five “longevity hotspots” in the world were up to 10 times more likely to live to the age of 100 than people in other regions. They call these hotspots “Blue Zones”. Researchers found nine common denominators among these regions that contributed to the longevity of the inhabitants, two of which are to put the care of loved ones first and to be involved in supportive social circles.

Researchers also found that grandparents who lived in the same home as their grandchildren lowered the rate of disease and mortality of the children.

So, according to research, the more time grandparents spend with their grandchildren, the better, right? Not quite. As the age-old adage says, there can always be too much of a good thing. The Australian study also showed that grandmothers who watch over their grandchildren five days a week or more may have a higher risk of developing neurodegenerative disorders.

The most probable cause? Exhaustion. Researchers found that the grandmothers who helped with childcare more often felt that their own children were too demanding of their time, and that the feeling of being overextended impacted their brain function. In fact, nine percent of the grandmothers in the study withdrew, saying they were too busy caring for their families to continue to participate.

As with anything, the key is moderation. In a study conducted by Northwell Health, 12 percent of grandparents say their support system did not meet their most important needs, while 71 percent say that their responsibility to care for their grandchildren limited their ability to socialize with friends. Nearly one-third also indicated that taking care of their grandchild had affected their spouse or relationship unfavorably.

There are numerous benefits to having grandparents actively involved in the lives of their grandchildren, and vice versa, but Kerwin says those who do not have grandchildren to babysit can still gain the same benefits shown in the study by adding activities into their daily routine to get similar results.

“Be sure to add in more physical activity every day, like walking for 30 minutes a day,” she says. “Include activity that stimulates your brain such as attending a class, lecture or other social activity. A group exercise class at your local community center fulfills both physical and mental exercise.”

Do you have a new grandchild on the way or simply want to brush up on your skills? Sign up for a Grandparents 101 course by visiting TexasHealth.org/Classes. To learn more about the Texas Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders program, please visit TexasAlzheimersAndMemoryDisorders.com.

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