Grandparents should be more aware of the long-term health impact that their behavior has on their grandchildren, a new study says. Researchers suggest that the bad habits of part-time carers may lead to a raised risk of cancer in children later in life.

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How do grandparents influence their grandchildren's long-term health outcomes?

Grandma and grandpa, keep your bad habits in check or you may harm your grandchildren's long-term health. At least, this is what new research from the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom indicates.

Usually, and quite intuitively, research focuses on the impact of primary carers, such as parents, on the development of the children's health over time. This makes a lot of sense; children watch the people that they live with every day, and parents' behaviors can influence children's attitudes to food, their eating patterns, and their pull toward harmful habits such as smoking.

Diet, smoking, drinking, and physical exercise can all become risk factors for a range of diseases later in life, from metabolic diseases such as obesity and diabetes to different forms of cancer.

Lead study author Dr. Stephanie Chambers and her colleagues have now evaluated the long-term health risks posed to children by grandparents who act as part-time carers. More specifically, they wanted to see how grandparents influence the risk of their grandchildren developing cancer.

"Currently grandparents are not the focus of public health messaging targeted at parents and in light of the evidence from this study, perhaps this is something that needs to change given the prominent role grandparents play in the lives of children," Dr. Chambers says.

The paper was recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Cut down on the sweet treats

The researchers reviewed a total of 56 different studies from across 18 countries, all focusing on the impact of grandparents on the long-term lifestyle-related health risks in grandchildren.

Dr. Chambers and her team focused on how grandparents' behavior with and around grandchildren might contribute to long-term lifestyle patterns that could lead to a heightened risk of cancer. Such risks include smoking, an unhealthful diet, and lack of exercise.

Although grandparents may be well-intentioned when they pamper their grandchildren and shower them with sweets, or give them a break from the strict parental rule that may prohibit certain foods, sugary drinks, or harmful behaviors, this is precisely the sort of conduct that can lead to negative health outcomes in the children.

The researchers found that grandparents who habitually give children "treats," overfeed them, or allow them to "chill out" and avoid physical activity negatively influence the grandchildren's weight gain and dietary patterns.

Another harmful grandparent habit that the researchers identified was smoking around their grandchildren, thus exposing them to passive smoking and possibly influencing them to find cigarettes desirable.

Behaviors that encourage overeating and sedentarism and implicitly condone harmful habits such as smoking can all lead to unhealthful lifestyles associated with an increased risk of cancer.

Still, Dr. Chambers notes that grandparents don't intend to harm their grandchildren in any way.

"While the results of this review are clear that behaviour such as exposure to smoking and regularly treating children increases cancer risks as children grow into adulthood," she says, "it is also clear from the evidence that these risks are unintentional."

Listen to the parents' concerns, too

Another issue brought to light by the research team was the fact that parents are often aware of the grandparents' undesirable behaviors around the children and vehemently oppose them.

That being said, parents sometimes find it difficult to broach these topics openly, and to urge the grandparents to change their tack or stop exposing the children to tobacco smoke in the home.

Misguidedly generous grandparents, or grandparents who didn't mind indulging in their own bad habits around children, also appeared to be the focus of family tensions.

"From the studies we looked at, it appears that parents often find it difficult to discuss the issues of passive smoking and over-treating grandchildren. Given that many parents now rely on grandparents for care, the mixed messages about health that children might be getting is perhaps an important discussion that needs to be had."

Dr. Stephanie Chambers

While the studies reviewed by the team do not discuss "the emotional benefit of children spending time with their grandparents," it is important to consider how this relationship can influence the children's health trajectory.

Prof. Linda Bauld, from Cancer Research UK, comments that more attention should be paid to how grandparents, as well as parents, act with and around children. "Children's health can be affected by range of factors, and this study reinforces the importance of the broader family picture," she says.

"Children should never be exposed to secondhand smoke," stresses Prof. Bauld. "But," she goes on to say, "it's also important for children to maintain a healthy weight into adulthood. If healthy habits begin early in life, it's much easier to continue them as an adult."