“When grandparents walk through the door, discipline flies out the window,” poet Ogden Nash once quipped. That may be true, but if discipline is lost, something else is gained — for the grandparent’s benefit.

Older adults who regularly look after their grandchildren are less likely to feel lonely than folks who aren’t caregivers at all, a recent study finds. But not all caregiving boosts well-being. Caring for a spouse or partner increases levels of loneliness, the study found. This is especially true when looking after someone with dementia.

Feelings of isolation have been linked not only to mental health issues, but also to physical health conditions such as an increased risk of stroke and high blood pressure.

The researchers from King’s College, London, came to this conclusion after analyzing 28 previous studies that involved nearly 200,000 adults from 21 countries who were fifty years or older. The review included the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, China and others.

Loneliness can have many different causes, from grief over the loss of a loved one, to a change in circumstances such as retirement or moving to a new living situation. Feelings of isolation have been linked not only to mental health issues such as depression, but also to physical health conditions including cardiac problems such as an increased risk of stroke and high blood pressure.

Samia Akhter-Khan of King’s College, London, the study’s lead author, stressed the scope of the issue in a press release: “There is a pressing need to identify people who may be more vulnerable to feeling lonely — and to develop targeted solutions to prevent and reduce loneliness in these population groups.”

The research found:

  • Grandparents who spent an average of 12 hours a week taking care of their grandchildren were significantly less likely to report feeling lonely.
  • Providing care to a partner or spouse was consistently associated with higher rates of loneliness.
  • Volunteer work helped ease feelings of isolation.

“This is the first review of its kind to investigate systematically the relationship between older people’s caregiving and volunteering activities and loneliness,” said co-author, Matthew Prina, Head of the Social Epidemiology Research Group at King’s College.

The hope is that the study’s findings will lead to more research into fulfilling and meaningful activities that engage people. But that’s not all. “This could help shed light on the optimal ‘dose’ of volunteering and caring for grandchildren and identify ways to maximize their potential beneficial effects on combating loneliness in the over 50’s,” Prina said.

Just taking your grandkids to playgroups or picking them up from school can help keep loneliness at bay, the British and German researchers found.

But what if you don’t have the pleasure of caring for grandchildren? You can still be helpful. As the study confirmed, volunteering also helps prevent loneliness. To find a volunteering opportunity in your area, check out volunteermatch.org.

The study is published in Aging and Mental Health.