The grandmother hypothesis: Grandma may help you live longer

Published: Thursday, Oct. 25 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

Diana Nevins reads to her grandson Lincoln Reynolds at her home in Spanish Fork Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — New mathematical simulations support the idea that grandmas do even more good than their homemade treats, creative handicrafts, encouraging words and helping hands already do.

A new study by University of Utah anthropologists says that as humans evolved, females whose childbearing years were ending were able to step in and help weaning children forage for food and other necessities, allowing mothers to focus on having more children.

It was further support to the "grandmother hypothesis," a brainchild of Kristen Hawkes, a University of Utah professor of anthropology and lead author of the study.

"Grandmothering was the initial step toward making us who we are," Hawkes said.

The study was published this week in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The idea of grandmothering has been shown to not only give aging women an extension to their maternal purpose, resulting in an increased lifespan, but also to pass longevity genes to more descendants, who have longer adult lifespans as a result.

For Diana Nevins, becoming a grandmother was "the best news in the whole world."

Nevins, who lives in Spanish Fork, has four grandchildren but feels privileged to watch one of them, Lincoln, through much of the week while his parents work and go to school.

"It is important to spend time with them, be there for them and be their greatest and best fan," she said.

Nevins and her husband moved their life from Missouri, selling a house and buying a new one, to be in Utah for Lincoln.

"It was a giant leap of faith, but it has been worth every minute," she said.

Influencing children

An older grandson, Nevins said, attends BYU and comes over for Sunday dinner every other week. And she Facebook chats with a granddaughter every once in a while. It's all part of an attempt to be "a big part of their lives," which Nevins strives to be.

"That grand-baby is a part of your child, who you love so much. It is sort of an extension of that, another little person that stems from that," she said. "It's fun to see them grow and learn. I don't remember my children learning as quickly as Lincoln is."

Nevins, 61, said she feels different being a grandmother than being a mother, less responsibility maybe, as her grandchildren always go home at the end of the day to their parents. Having less to worry about as a mature adult, she said she can focus more on the happiness of her grandchildren, and that brings her joy.

"I think I realized that housework isn't as important as being with my grandchild," Nevins said. "The things I thought were important aren't so much. The time with him is more important."

She said the kids can learn things from her that they might not encounter elsewhere, including unconditional love.

"There are no strings attached with grandma and grandpa love. It's there all the time," Nevins said. And while Lincoln's demands are simple now — he's 18 months old — he appreciates the routine at grandma's house, which includes meals, playtime, a ride around the neighborhood on grandpa's scooter, and reading lots and lots of books.

Hawkes' hypothesis stemmed from observations conducted with another University of Utah anthropologist and co-author of the new study, James O'Connell, in the 1980s when they lived with Tanzania's Hazda hunter-gatherer people and watched older women spend their days collecting food for their grandchildren.

Except for humans, all other primates and mammals collect their own food after weaning, she said.

But as the population evolved, researchers have noted environmental changes that led to a scarcity of food.

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