For a brain boost, spend time with your grandchildren … but only once in a while
Grandparents often say that spending time with their grandchild gives them great joy. What they may not realize is that their brains can actually benefit from the interaction. A new study finds grandchildren keep grandmothers mentally sharp.
The study, published on April 7th, 2014 in Menopause, the journal of the North American Menopause Society, finds post-menopausal women who spend time taking care of grandkids lower their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive disorders. However, too much time with the grandchildren – five or more days a week – appeared to make grandma more likely to lose her marbles.
“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,” North American Menopause Society (NAMS) executive director Dr. Margery Gass said.
The research was led by Katherine Burn, BSc, of the University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia. The researchers used information from the Women’s Healthy Aging Project, which involved questionnaires administered by trained field workers in 2004. They asked whether the women, aged 57 to 68, had grandchildren, whether they cared for them, how often they cared for them if they did and whether their children had been particularly demanding of them in the past 12 months.
The women’s cognitive abilities were assessed using the Symbol-Digit Modalities Test (SDMT), California Verbal Learning Test, and Tower of London. In addition to these three different tests of mental sharpness, the women also told the researchers whether or not they felt as if their own children had been especially demanding of them over the past year. Of the 120 grandmothers in the study, those who cared for their grandchildren one day per week performed best on two of those three tests.
However, much to the authors’ surprise, grandmothers who cared for their grandchildren for at least five days per week did significantly worse on a test that measured those women’s mental processing speed and working memory. The investigation also revealed that the more time grandmothers spent taking care of grandkids, they more they felt that their own children had been more demanding of them, suggesting that mood could be a factor in this finding.
The authors say their findings could indicate that highly frequent grandparenting predicts lower mental performance. They are planning to follow up with additional research.
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,“ said Dr. Margery Gass. “This study is a good start.”
This study was small, according to Jim McAleer, MPA, president of the Alzheimer’s Association, but the results did not surprise him. He said in an email that other studies have shown that social engagement and exercise (and it’s assumed there is some exercise involved in caring for children) benefit the mind. “It’s surprising that longer periods of care impacted memory function. Perhaps extend physical exertion in those cases caused other health problems that impacted memory, or increased stress — a known risk factor for memory loss.”
Peter Strong, PhD, of the Boulder Center for Mindfulness Therapy, wrote in an email that he believes the inner feeling of self-worth that comes from being socially engaged with grandchildren is what’s important. As for the negative effect of spending too much time caring for their grandchildren? “Once a week is enough to develop this inner belief; any more than this may create the opposite belief of not being physically or mentally able to fulfill the expectations of extended child minding and this will undermine the positive belief of self-worth.”
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