Grandmothers that babysit regularly suffer chronic stress

In a study that raises potentially troubling questions about the burden of child care on grandparents, Harvard University researchers found a 55 percent greater risk of heart disease among grandmothers who care for their grandchildren.

Researchers believe the cause may be added wear and tear that child care puts on an elderly body. The study found heightened risks from as little as nine hours each week spent looking after a child.

The study focuses on 13,392 women caring for grandchildren (the women were all around age 60). All were registered nurses; nearly half still worked full time while the rest had retired or were working limited hours. Looking at the women's health records, researchers found:

  • During that four-year period there were 321 cases of heart disease, including 231 non-fatal heart attacks and 90 deaths.

  • Working grandmothers did not have higher heart disease risk than stay-at-home grandmothers.

    Chronic stress from regular child care is likely the problem. "It's not like they take care of the children for awhile, then the kids are gone," says author Sunmin Lee, an epidemiologist with Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "For most of these grandmothers, this is a daily responsibility. We know that chronic stress is bad for heart health. Stress raises blood pressure, causes wear and tear on arteries, and leads to heart disease."

    The time commitment also eats up grandmother's time for regular health-care checkups, exercise, and other habits of a healthy lifestyle, says Lee.

    Source: Laura Johannes, Babysitting May Be Hazardous To Grandmother's Health, Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2003 and Jeanie Lerche Davis, Child Care Can Tax Grandma's Health: Stress, Unhealthy Lifestyle, Lead To Heart Disease, WebMD Medical News, October 30, 2003.

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    FMF Policy Bulletin/ 4 November 2003
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