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Taking Care of Others May Help Extend Life

The process of caregiving activates the neural and hormonal system in positive ways, which that promotes engagement in pro-social behavior towards kin and non-kin alike. A recent study suggests that people who take care of their grandchildren or other people in their social network may live longer.

Participants in the study included 516 people who were between the ages of 70 and 100 and who took part in the Berlin Aging Study. Data was collected for the Berlin Aging Study between 1990 and 2009. The researchers excluded grandparents who were primary caregivers for their grandchildren. Instead they focused on comparing those who provided occasional childcare with those who did not. They also included older people who did not have children or grandchildren but were taking care of others in their social network.

Taking care of others was correlated with longer lifespan. The researchers found that half of the grandparents who took care of their grandchildren were alive 10 years after the initial interview in 1990. In addition, those who did not have grandchildren but supported their children on a regular basis, for example by doing housework, were also alive 10 years after the initial interview. 

In comparison, approximately half of the participants who did not care for others died within five years of the initial interview. Mortality hazards for those who did not care for others was 37% higher than for those who did.

Participants who provided emotional support for people outside of their families also lived longer. On average, half of this group lived an average of seven more years, while those who did not help anyone lived for an average of four more years after the initial interview.

Researchers from the University of Basel, Edith Cowan University, the University of Western Australia, the Humboldt University of Berlin, and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin conducted the study. It was published online ahead of print on December 5, 2016, in Evolution & Human Behavior.

Previous studies suggest that socializing later in life is also essential for maintaining quality of life, reducing loneliness, and even warding of dementia. Experts suggest that people look into volunteering, social groups, and spending time with family.

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