Grandparents are healthier than ever

Grandparents are healthier than they were 30 years ago, even though they’re also older, a Canadian study has found.

From 1985 to 2011, the proportion of Canadian grandparents who described their health as good, very good, or excellent rose from 70 to 77 percent, according to the study, which was conducted by sociologists Rachel Margolis and Natalie Iciaszczyk of the University of Western Ontario.

Rachel Margolis is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario. Photo by Eric Simard.

Rachel Margolis is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario. Photo by Eric Simard.

That’s largely because, on the whole, Canadian grandparents are better educated than they used to be, Margolis and Iciaszczyk wrote last year in Canadian Studies in Population, a scholarly journal.

In general, as a population grows more educated, it also grows healthier, though scientists aren’t certain exactly why. In all likelihood, education leads to “heath-promoting behaviors” and “higher levels of health literacy.”

American grandparents, too, are likely healthier than they used to be, Margolis says, though she can’t say for sure until she’s conducted further research.

“There is variation across countries in the degree to which the older population’s health is improving,” she told me in an email. “My hypothesis is that we will see a similar pattern of improving grandparent health in other contexts, but that remains to be seen.”

Some of the gains in the health of Canadian grandparents may also be a result of medical advances, Margolis told me, though her study didn’t confirm that.

The improved health of grandparents “has important implications for family dynamics,” Margolis and Iciaszczyk contended in their journal article.

Healthier grandparents “are potentially more able to provide important resources to younger generations, including the provision of grandchild care and aid in the personal and cognitive development of the younger generation.”

“This care may be key for allowing the middle generation to keep labour force participation high, which can improve household income, gender equality, and overall well-being for families.”

“Healthy grandparents may also have more rewarding interactions with younger kin, as they are better able to participate in activities with the family.”

The study also found that Canadian grandparents are, on the whole, older than they were 30 years ago, both because they’re becoming grandparents later than their predecessors did and because they’re living longer.

In 1985, nearly 40 percent of Canadian grandparents were under age 60, while in 2011 only about 30 percent were. And while only about 15 percent of Canadian grandparents were 75 or older in 1985, in 2011 nearly 24 percent were.

Research suggests that American grandparents, too, are older than they were a generation ago, though most American parents still become grandparents by their mid-50s, according to a study published last year.