The Importance of Grandmas – Why humans undergo menopause

Humans are one of three animals to undergo menopause. Short-finned pilot whales and orcas — or killer whales — are the only other two and their experience through life is instructive as to why this might be.

The Importance of Grandmas

Orcas rely on the older females for survival

Emma Foster, a PhD student from the University of Exeter, went through decades of data and discovered some fascinating statistics. If a male orca’s mother died before he was 30, he was 3 times more likely to die within a year. If the male was over 30 years old, he was 8 times more likely to die within a year. If his mother had already gone through menopause, he was 14 times more likely to die.

This shows the effect that these aging mothers have on their offsprings’ survival. It would appear that their knowledge of the times to fish and how to avoid fisheries etc. is something they are able to pass down.

Female Orcas are more often the leaders in these pods. The ones who have passed childbearing years are those most commonly found to be most adept at keeping members of their group alive and well fed. Orca’s go through menopause around 30-40 and can live to be over 100 years old. This allows them to become grandmas and help pass on their knowledge to the second, third, and even fourth generations below them.

Okay, so how does this relate to humans?

The grandmother effect, first proposed in 1966 stems from the belief at the that humans were the only animals with postmenopausal survival.

Mathematical simulations have demonstrated the importance of surviving grandmothers in the lengthening of the human life span.

One study showed that for individuals born between 1780 and 1831 having a grandmother between 50 and 75 years old while the grandchild was under 5 increased survival rate of the child dramatically.

It would seem that humans have developed an interesting adaptation to account for our slow brain development. Grandma’s stick around in life to help relieve some of the childrearing duties from mothers so they they are able to have more children and for all of their children to live as long as possible.

Fast forward to today

Today, the grandmother effect is felt less and less. Globalization and industrialization has transformed the nuclear family. We no longer live in small tribal groups like we did until the late 1800s/early 1900s. Industrialization, modern medicine, and improved food gathering techniques has made it possible for grandfathers to survive much longer than was typical in primitive societies.

So if we are requiring less help from grandmothers in the traditional sense what role to they, as well as grandfathers, play in our society?

The modern grandparent effect

Technological advances have made it possible for grandparents to be involved in their children and grandchildren’s lives no matter the geographic distance. This makes it possible for them to share their wisdom even with decreasing physical proximity.

Modern transportation has allowed for increased physical visitation as well.

What’s more, grandparents have an opportunity to be more of a help in their community than ever before.

My grandparents lives next door to a family who just moved to Utah. They don’t have many relations and the two young children look to my grandma and grandpa for support. Many times a month the parents will come to my grandparents asking if they can watch the kids while the parents run errands or get some work done.

My grandparents are both happy to be able to provide support. They love watching these two little kids grow up and our family has gotten to know this other family as we have spent time visiting my grandparents.

Preserving knowledge

Technology has provided another way for grandparents to instill knowledge through the generations. At no other time in history have we had a means of perfectly preserving knowledge to pass down.

Writing blog posts to go live on the internet, publishing videos, even email can be used to create a record of knowledge to pass to future generations. Tools such as family search can be used to link memories to past ancestors and maintain the body of knowledge passed down from generation to generation.

Look to the past to understand the future.

As we learn from our grandparents and those from their generation we continue to move society forward. As the old saying goes, “Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”

International Women’s Day is a great day to honor and remember our grandmas. Reach out to your grandma or mother and see if there is any great wisdom they can pass down.