The day after Rhoda Piccola's daughter-in-law died unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm, her newly widowed son -- and 3-year-old grandson -- moved in.
That was 11 years ago, and Piccola and her husband, Mike, of Jericho, N.Y., have been involved in raising Justin ever since. But in recent years, they've developed health problems. Mike, 72, had open-heart surgery three years ago; Rhoda, 68, has been battling breast cancer.
A new study has focused attention on the health status of grandparents such as the Piccolas with its startling finding that women who care for grandchildren as little as nine hours a week are 1 1/2 times more likely to have heart disease than women who provide no care.
"More hours of care may have a ... worse effect," said Sunmin Lee, one of the authors of the study and a researcher with the Harvard School of Public Health and the Channing Laboratory in Boston. Lee said the researchers did not have data to determine the impact full-time caregiving had on grandparents' health.
But Dr. Gisele Wolf-Klein, a geriatrician at the Parker Jewish Institute for Health Care and Rehabilitation in New Hyde Park, N.Y., said caregiving in general is an unrecognized cause of disease and mortality.
"The data has been emerging particularly with caregivers of Alzheimer's patients," she said. "The medical professionals tend to focus on the patient, ignoring those who are caring for the patient."
Rhoda Piccola said caring for Justin never interfered with getting herself and her husband the care they needed. "It's been wonderful," she said of the experience of having Justin live with them; but, she acknowledged, "it's stressful."
Chronic stress appears to play a role in heart disease, said Lee, who found in an earlier study that women caring for an ill spouse faced double the risk of heart disease than those who were not.
The latest study of caregiving grandmothers, published in the American Journal of Public Health, looked at 54,412 women ages 46 to 71. The women were participants in the Nurses' Health Study, an ongoing investigation of registered nurses that started in 1976.