Mental Boost from Spending Time With Grandchildren

Memory of grandmothers may improve with some time spent with grandchildren

(RxWiki News) Many grandparents will tell you that caring for their grandchild gives them great joy. What they may not realize is how their minds are benefiting from the interaction.

A new study found that postmenopausal women who spend a bit of time with their grandchild may do better on tests of memory than women who don’t.

But it seems to be a case of too much of a good thing not being so good. Women who spent significantly more time caring for their grandchild showed memory impairment, the study found.

"Spend time with your grandchildren for a mental boost."

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 were given a series of four tests as part of a neuropsychological assessment.

There were 186 women in the study, of which 131 were grandmothers. Of these, 111 were currently caring for their grandchildren. The number of grandchildren they cared for varied.

Those caring for grandchildren one day a week had the highest cognitive performance of all, better than women who did not care for grandchildren at all and better than grandmothers who did so more often.

Those who cared for their grandchildren five days a week or more did less well with their working memory (recent memory) and with the time it took for them to process thoughts.

Most of the respondents (67.6 percent) reported that they did not feel their children were particularly demanding, but those who did report finding their children demanding tended to be those who watched their grandchildren often and did not fare as well on the memory tests. The study's authors suggested that mood may play a role in how well these women performed on the tests.

These authors wrote that the population of women studied are generally better educated and healthier than the general population, which may have influenced the findings.

"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 NAMS Executive Director Margery Gass, MD. "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.”

This study was published April 7 in the journal Menopause.

One of the study's authors, Cassandra Szoeke, noted a number of potential conflicts of interest, but the other authors reported none.

Review Date: 
April 9, 2014