Grandkids: Bad for your health?

Ask any senior for the main cause of heart attack, and they’ll probably reply, “High cholesterol,” or “obesity, diabetes, hypertension, smoking and being a couch potato.” But what about the responsibility of caring for grandchildren? New research indicates if you’re considering this endeavour, it’s prudent to increase your life insurance. However well-intentioned, the task can trigger more than a headache.

Since it’s difficult for many families to survive today on a single salary, grandparents are increasingly being asked to look after the grandchildren. Sometimes, it’s a request to care for them for only a few hours a week. But in other instances, it means reliving earlier difficult and exhausting parenting duties for months or years.

Some grandparents may thrive on this routine. But a report in the American Journal of Public Health shows that looking after the little darlings can be lethal.

Studies from the Harvard School of Public Health reveal this is a risk many grandparents are assuming. Today, one in seven American women has raised a grandchild for six months or longer.

Between 1992 and 1996, Dr. Sunm Lee of Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston studied 54,412 registered nurses 41 to 71 in age who tended grandchildren at least nine hours a week.

Love – and stress?
Now, if you’re one of those caring for grandkids, sit down before you read on. Lee says this task resulted in an astonishing 55 per cent increased risk of heart attack. This might even make a teetotaller grandparent reach for a scotch and soda. “It’s probably the stress,” Lee concludes from the research. “It’s likely grandparents have so many demands placed on them, they have little time and energy left to care for themselves.”

This may be the understatement of all time. As a grandparent and knowing the chaos that can occur when grandchildren arrive for a mere two-hour visit, I’m surprised the figure isn’t higher.

I’m also surprised Dr. Lee didn’t mention orthopedic injures. Grandparents often forget that children are heavier today. One of my patients stretching to remove a grandchild from a car seat suddenly experienced a severe, sharp pain radiating down her leg. The diagnosis? A ruptured intervertebral disk that required several weeks of bed rest.

Grandparents often joke that they love to see their grandchildren but “only for a few hours.” Now we know it’s also much safer that way. Surely, a 55 per cent increased risk of leaving this planet is too high a price to pay for loving them longer.

But apart from its effect on health, remember child care is a huge responsibility. I’ve never forgotten reading about the grandfather who, while backing up his car, killed his grandchild. The guilt and depression that follow such a tragedy are impossible to imagine.

Constant vigilance
Luckily, catastrophes are rare. But they will occur less often if grandparents keep medications, vitamins and even iron tablets out of reach of children. Too many die every year from swallowing adult medication. And remember to turn down the hot water thermostat to prevent severe scald burns.

One cardinal rule in supervising grandchildren is to never leave them alone for a second. This is particularly true when they’re in kitchens, bathrooms, on playground equipment or near water – always a magnet for kids.

I recently witnessed a near accident to a small child while grandparents were in the same room. A dog not noted for aggressive behaviour suddenly and for no apparent reason savagely lunged at the child. If adults had not been present, the result could have been severe facial injuries and loss of an eye.

So what should grandparents do when faced with this child-care question? I know how to decrease the risk of high cholesterol, diabetes and other cardiac hazards. But in this instance, the best prescription is to think twice and explore every alternative before agreeing to the long-term care of grandchildren.

As I consider this frightening statistic, I hope fate never hands me the long-term care of grandchildren. Love them I certainly do, but just thinking that my busy grandchildren would arrive permanently on my doorstep triggers an immediate cardiac arrhythmia.