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Why Do Grandmothers Exist?

In the January issue of New Republic, Judith Shulevitz wrote a thought-provoking article: Why Do Grandmothers Exist? Solving an evolutionary mystery. Her premise is that if creatures are supposed to drop dead as soon as they lose their power to reproduce, why do women live about 20 years beyond their reproductive years?

Shulevitz offers several theories that have been proposed over the years. In 1957, the evolutionary biologist George Williams proposed that middle-age women need baby-free time to usher their youngest children into adulthood.

In the 1980s, an American anthropologist came up with a different theory called the “grandmother hypothesis:” women past childbearing age helped not just their children, but also their grandchildren by providing food and thus lengthened the human lifespan in the process.

Not everyone accepts this feminist account of our evolutionary history. But two decades later, the grandmother hypothesis has gone from conjecture to one of the dominant theories of why we live so long, breed so fast, and are so smart. The extra calories and care supplied by women in their long post-fertile period subsidized the long pre-fertile period that is childhood. And that’s what made us fully human.

Shulevitz continues to say that the grandmother hypothesis comes along just as Americans enter what might be called the Age of Old Age. America’s biggest generation, the baby boomers, began retiring in 2011 and the fear is that we will bankrupt America. The grandmother hypothesis suggests not. As gerontologist Linda Fried, dean of Columbia University’s school of public health, points out, “Older adults constitute the only increasing natural resource in the entire world” and could be seen as a tremendous benefit to our society.

Huff Post Live invited me to participate in a guest panel with Shulevitz via webcam and share my reactions to the article. Moderator Alicia Menendez did a phenomenal job of asking questions about whether the ‘Age of Old Age’ is an opportunity rather than a disaster.

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