Caring for Others Linked to Increased Longevity Interview with:
Sonja Hilbrand MSc
Department of Psychology
University of Basel
Basel, Switzerland. What is the background for this study?

Response: Grandparenting is a topic of both great practical and theoretical interest. For instance, grandparents in industrialized societies invest substantial amounts of time and money in their grandchildren and there are many studies examining the potential benefits for these grandchildren. Other studies have focused on potentially negative effects on grandparental mortality associated with providing custudial care for grandchildren.
In addition to previous research we wanted to ask whether there are tangible benefits to the donors (grandparents) of the resources. In other words, is caring a one-way street or not.

In our study we examined whether moderate amounts of caregiving were associated with the longevity of older adults. For our analysis we used longitudinal data of over 500 German individuals aged between 70 and 103 years. What are the main findings?

Response: We found that half of the grandparents providing non-intensive childcare lived for about 10 more years after the first interview. In contrast, half of the grandparents who did not provide childcare and non-grandparents died within 5 years after the initial interview. Similar results were found for parents who supported their adult children (for example by helping them with housework) versus parents who did not.

Because in modern societies many people do not have children or grandchildren, we also examined whether caregiving beyond the nuclear family (i.e. members of the person’s social network) was positively associated with longevity. Indeed, half of the people who provided practical or emotional support to friends or neighbours lived approximately another 7 years after the first interview, while half of the non-supporters died within 4 years after the initial interview. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Helping others within and beyond the family can lead to enhanced longevity of older helpers. But helping others is not a panacea for a long life. It is very important that every individual decides for him/herself, what ‘moderate amounts of help’ means. As long as you do not feel stressed about the intensity of help you provide you may be doing something good for others as well as for yourself.

At the same time, there are a manifold ways to boost health and longevity at old age. At the end of the day it is a personal decision everyone has to make about how you want to live your life. For example, spending a relaxing day with friends or engage in physical exercise may be just as good as helping others. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: Two things seem important. First, studying the effect in other longitudinal data sets and examining whether it can be replicated. Second, studying the underlying mechanisms of the relationship between helping and longevity. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: We controlled for a wide range of competing factors in our analysis, for example prior health, age, gender, family size, social support received and socioeconomic status of the helpers, their children and grandchildren. However, other (unobserved) factors may be at play and from the results of this study, we cannot claim causation nor conclude that helping is the ultimate way to achieve a long life. Thank you for your contribution to the community.


Sonja Hilbrand, David A. Coall, Denis Gerstorf, Ralph Hertwig. Caregiving within and beyond the family is associated with lower mortality for the caregiver: A prospective study. Evolution and Human Behavior, 2016; DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2016.11.010

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Last Updated on December 25, 2016 by Marie Benz MD FAAD