Grannies give gift of longer lives

Unlike the females of most species, women often live for decades after their childbearing years. A new study suggests that there’s an evolutionary reason for granny’s staying power.

Grandmothers have traditionally helped care for their grandchildren, especially once the youngsters have been weaned. As a result, according to a team led by Mirkka Lahdenperä of the University of Turku in Finland, the daily presence of a grandmother enhances the reproductive success of her own children and the survival of her grandchildren.

The researchers analyzed birth and death records in two farming communities, one in Finland and the other in Canada, from the 18th and 19th centuries. Of particular interest were 537 Finnish women and 3,290 Canadian women who lived past age 50 after bearing at least one child in a marriage. All were grandmothers.

On average, these women gained two extra grandchildren for every decade that they survived past age 50, the scientists report in the March 11 Nature. This finding held regardless of differences in health and living conditions between the communities or among families within each community. Moreover, grandchildren more often survived to adulthood if their grandmother was alive at their birth, especially if she was under age 60.

Adult sons and daughters of living mothers began to bear their own children 2 to 3 years earlier than did those whose mothers had died.

The new findings support the theory that, during human evolution, the benefits that came with family assistance provided by grandmothers had the general effect of increasing human longevity, says Kristen Hawkes of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, in a commentary published with the new study.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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