Grandchildren, The Long Visit Can Be Lethal

BFP Magazine

Cardio-vascular Health

Baby-sitting, Heart Attack

Grandchildren, The Long Visit Can Be Lethal

By Dr. W. Gifford Jones

April 11, 2004

"Would you like to look after the grandchildren for us?" is an often heard request these days. Sometimes it's a request for a few hours of baby-sitting to allow parents a quiet evening on their own. But today with both parents working, caring for grandchildren can result in months or years of reliving earlier days. Some grandparents thrive on this routine. But a report in the American Journal of Public Health shows that caring for grandkids can trigger more than a headache. It can also cause increased risk of heart attack.

Dr Sunmin Lee, of Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, studied 544,412 registered nurses ages 41 to 71 between 1992 and 1996 who cared for grandchildren at least nine hours a week. He reports that this resulted in a 55 per cent increased risk of heart attack.

"It's probably the stress" Dr .Lee says. And then adds, "It is likely than caregivers have so many demands placed on them that they lose time and energy to take care of themselves."

I doubt that many grandparents who have cared for young children would disagree with this conclusion. Taking care of young active children is stressful and leaves little time for adequate sleep, eating right and exercising.

Grandparents often joke that they love to see their grandchildren, but quickly add that loving them for only a few hours at a time is easier. Now one can add that it's also much safer. A 55 per cent increased risk of heart attack appears to be a high price for loving grandchildren longer.

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

So now we can add caring for grandkids along with high cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes and obesity as causes for coronary attack.

But unfortunately that isn't the entire problem. Before you agree to look after grandchildren remember it's a huge responsibility.

One cardinal rule in supervising grandchildren is never to leave them alone even for a second. This is particularly true when they're in kitchens, bathrooms, around playground equipment or near water. But even when you're present tragedy can strike.

I recently witnessed a near accident to a small child even though several grandparents were in the same room. A dog, not noted for attacking young children, suddenly for no apparent reason, savagely lunged at the child. If an adult had not been close by it could have resulted in severe facial injuries and loss of an eye.

Luckily catastrophes are rare. But I'll never forget reading about the grandparent who, backing up his car, killed his grandchild. The guilt and depression that follows such a tragedy are impossible to imagine.

Should grandparents agree to care for grandchildren there are several ways to decrease the risk of accidents.

Remember times have changed and today's lifestyle is different. Many grandparents will recall driving without seatbelts for children even in a convertible! Luckily the law and good sense dictates this is unacceptable today.

There are also more drugs in the homes of grandparents today. All these medications whether they be vitamins, heart medicines or iron tablets must be keep out of reach of children. Children die every year from swallowing adult medication.

Make certain that grandchildren always wear safety gear such as helmets, pads etc when riding bikes, scooters, skating or playing sports.

Install and maintain a smoke alarm for every level of your home and near all sleeping areas. There should also be a device to detect carbon monoxide gas. And turn down the hot water thermostat to the point where it will not cause severe scald burns.

If you have firearms in the home store them unloaded and locked up. And keep any ammunition in a separate location out of reach to children. But even under the best of circumstances accidents happen. So be prepared for potential trouble. Keep the number of the poison control center and emergency medical numbers next to the telephone. And remember that dogs need constant supervision when near children.

W. Gifford-Jones M.D is the pen name of Dr. Ken Walker graduate of The Harvard Medical School. He's been a ship's surgeon, hotel physician and family doctor and later trained in surgery at McGill in Montreal, University of Rochester N.Y. and Harvard. His medical column is published by 60 Canadian newspapers and several in the U.S. He is the author of seven books. Dr. Walker has a medical practice in Toronto. His Web site is: He can be reached at

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