In my household, gone are the days of gender stereotypes; the housework is shared equally, and my partner — a fairly modern man — tends to do the lion's share of the cooking. According to a new study, however, it seems that elderly adults are stuck in a time when housework was the woman's job.
Researchers have found that every day, older women spend an average of 2 hours more doing household chores than men.
But it's not all bad. Older men and women who engage in more housework might have better health. Though if women get too much or too little sleep, the health benefits of housework diminish.
The new study — which was recently published in the journal BMC Public Health — was led by Nicholas Adjei and Tilman Brand, of the University of Bremen in Germany.
The research was designed to get a better idea of how adults spend their time in later life, and how certain day-to-day activities impact their health.
"The percentage of those aged 65 years and above," explains study co-leader Adjei, "is increasing globally due to higher life expectancy. It is important to understand how older adults spend their time in these later years and the possible positive and negative implications for their health."
In the study, the team points out that household activities have become the main "productive work" for older adults following retirement, but little is known about how such activities affect health.
Housework, health, and sleep
To find out, Adjei and Brand analyzed data from the Multinational Time Use Study (MTUS), which was first put together by researchers from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
The MTUS data provided information on the use of time of 15,333 men and 20,907 women aged 65 and older across seven countries, including Italy, Germany, the U.K., and the United States.
More specifically, the team looked at how much time the adults spent on 41 different activities each day, including cooking, cleaning, and other household chores, and how these affected overall health, which was self-reported.
The team also looked at whether the amount of time that the adults spent sleeping influenced the way that household activities impact health, noting that "sleep is one of the most important determinants of health."
As the study authors explain, "Among the elderly, sleep constitutes the lengthiest daily activity."
"This is expected because the increasing prevalence of health conditions at older age restricts time allocation for other daily activities. Time devoted to sleep is therefore crucial because it has been shown to be correlated with health among older adults."
Additionally, the scientists looked at how time spent on household activities varies between older men and women — something they say has never before been investigated.
So, what were the results?
Housework benefits men's health
The study revealed that older men engaged in 3.1 hours of household activities per day, while older women spent almost 4.7 hours daily on housework — almost 2 hours more every day.
Women spent more time cleaning, cooking, and shopping, the researchers report, while men spent more time on gardening and household maintenance.
When it came to looking at the effects of housework on health, Adjei and Brand found that elderly adults who spent between 3 and 6 hours on housework every day were 25 percent more likely to report good health, compared with those who spent just 1–2 hours doing housework each day.
When adding sleep to the mix, the study revealed that getting too much or too little — defined as under 7 hours or more than 8 hours per night — negated the health benefits of housework for women.
Among men, however, sleep duration appeared to have no impact on the health benefits of at least 3 hours of housework daily. "The result suggests that regardless of sleep duration, less housework was associated with poor health status among both genders," say the researchers.
Housework should be evenly distributed
Do these findings suggest that men should pull their sleeves up and wash those dishes? Brand thinks so.
He told Medical News Today that the fact that older women spend more time on housework than older men may be one reason for the sex differences in health effects of household chores.
"Our study," he told us, "found significant gender differences in the distribution of housework among the elderly."
"This inequitable division of housework," Brand continued, "may explain why women have poorer health beyond the threshold of 3 hours per day. In order to achieve equity in health, there should be a balance in the distribution of household task[s] among older men and women."
Brand added that women who spend long hours doing housework might also be under more stress.
He also told MNT, "We speculate that the higher level of stress or time pressure associated with routine housework activities may to some extent explain why older [women] who engage in long periods of housework combined with too little or too much sleep have poorer health compared to men."
So, it seems that as long as my partner continues to cook dinner and do the vacuuming into old age, I can look forward to some good health.