Researchers from the University of Glasgow suggested grandparents could put children at greater risk of developing cancer in later life due to overindulgent ‘treating,’ overfeeding, and a lack of physical activity.
The review of 56 studies from 18 countries on the subject of care provided by grandparents who are not the primary carer of their grandchildren was published in journal PLOS ONE under the title ‘A systematic review of grandparents’ influence on grandchildren’s cancer risk factors’.
The studies reviewed showed grandparents described by parents as ‘indulgent’ and ‘misinformed’. Parents quoted in the studies suggested that grandparents used food as an emotional tool, with many feeding their grandchildren high-sugar or high-fat foods as treats.
The review also found that children were perceived to be getting too little exercise while in the care of grandparents.
Second-hand smoke and role-modelling negative behaviour by smoking represented further long-term cancer risk factors posed to children by some grandparents, the studies suggested.
The report said exposure to risk factors in childhood could increase the likelihood of cancer morbidity or mortality in adulthood, and factors associated with children’s long term cancer risk are first experienced within the family setting.
However, the researchers pointed out that the studies reviewed do not take into account any positive emotional benefit of children spending time with their grandparents.
The review also suggested that grandparents could in fact sometimes play a role in promoting healthy eating practices, and becoming a grandparent could often provide a catalyst to giving up smoking entirely.
Lead author Dr Stephanie Chambers said, ‘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, it is also clear from the evidence that these risks are unintentional.
‘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.’
The majority of studies included in the review looked at issues raised from the point of view of the parent, and found that the grandparent behaviour described caused tension in families. Parents said they often felt unable to interfere because they relied on grandparents helping with care.
Dr Chambers added, ‘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.’
Professor Linda Bauld from Cancer Research UK, which part-funded the study, added, ‘With both smoking and obesity being the two biggest preventable causes of cancer in the UK, it’s important for the whole family to work together.
‘Children should never be exposed to second hand smoke. But it’s also important for children to maintain a healthy weight into adulthood, and in today’s busy world it's often the wider family who have a role to play in keeping youngsters healthy. If healthy habits begin early in life, it’s much easier to continue them as an adult.’
Lucy Peake, chief executive of the charity Grandparents Plus, said, ‘Grandparents are the largest provider of informal childcare, and allow millions of parents stay in work by stepping in to help out. We know that children benefit enormously from having close relationships with their grandparents right through childhood into adolescence. What this study shows is that the role they’re playing in children’s lives needs to be better recognised and supported.
‘We’d like to see more focus on ensuring that information available to parents about children’s health reaches grandparents too, as well as encouraging intergenerational activity like the walking routes that Grandparents Plus launched this year. Grandparents want the best for their grandchildren and the more they’re informed and enabled to play a positive role in their grandchildren’s lives the better things will be.’