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Why and How Evolution Turned Us into Grandparents

As Santa Clarita elder care professionals recently learned, practically all species of mammals die shortly after reaching the end of their reproductive lifespan. For example, the median age at death of chimpanzees, our closest living relative, is estimated to be around 35 years. In contrast, humans and elephants are the only species that undergo cessation of reproduction (menopause) and then continue to live for decades. Researchers have long speculated that for both humans and elephants, having healthy grandparents around improves the survival of their grandchildren, giving evolution a reason to select for this oddity of nature. 

Protective Genes

A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that unique among primates, humans have a number of genes that protect against the development of Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions that affect the elderly. These protective genes allow humans to live far beyond their reproductive years, allowing them to help provide for the grandchildren.


Prior to the development of modern medicine, a significant proportion of women died in childbirth, with the risk of death estimated to be around two percent with each birth. With no contraception, most women had child after child and eventually died in childbirth. Only a few women made it to the safety of menopause. Having healthy seniors around to help take care of the children, whether the mother was alive or not, undoubtedly increased the chances of children surviving to reproductive age. A study published by the University of Utah, Salt Lake, on hunter-gatherers found that children with living grandparents were better fed and healthier than those without grandparents.

Knowledge and Food 

In addition to being able to help forage for food, healthy seniors were also a knowledge bank. Prior to the advent of keeping written records, a senior’s memory was a valuable resource. If food became scarce, a senior might recall a place to get food that the group last visited 60 years ago, a fact that could save the entire group during hard times and gave grandparents an essential role in keeping both grandchildren and other families members alive.

Interested in learning more about promoting the health and happiness of your aging loved one? Reach out to Home Care Assistance today. We provide as-needed care for seniors, from hourly care for seniors who need minimal assistance to dementia care in Santa Clarita for seniors with advanced conditions. Call us at [hca_phone] and speak with a friendly Care Manager to learn more.