The lifestyle examples we're set by our parents during childhood can still hold a huge influence over our own health and wellbeing in later life. That's according to a recent study, which looked at 21,000 people aged 50 and above across 13 European countries.
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Researchers compared these people's current smoking habits, weight and exercise levels with their parents' job, longevity, smoking status and alcohol intake during the participants' childhoods. Their findings? Parents' lifestyle characteristics when the children were 10 years old explained between 31 and 78 per cent of their adult health – with a European average of 50 per cent.
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Why do we copy our parents?
This effect can be explained by two main factors, say the researchers.
First, if you experienced poor living conditions during childhood, you're more likely to experience poverty – and the associated health challenges – during adulthood.
Second, however, is the issue of learned behaviours: if you see your parents smoking or drinking, for example, you're more likely to do the same.
And so these unhealthy habits take hold when we're young – and soon become the norm throughout adulthood, as numerous studies have demonstrated. A couple of examples? Twelve-year-olds whose parents smoke are more than twice as likely to begin smoking daily between the ages of 13 and 21, according to University of Washington research.
Another survey, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, found that young teenagers who often see their parents drunk are twice as likely to regularly get drunk themselves.
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How hard is to change these habits?
Fast-forward to middle-age and beyond then – and many of us are still behaving as our parents did, partly because it's all we've ever known. Add to this the fact that many of these behaviours are addictive, and this can make those ingrained unhealthy habits much, much harder to break.
'Our environment has a powerful influence on the way we behave, including our health choices,' says psychologist Dr Meg Arroll from Healthspan. 'Many health-related patterns of behaviour are formed during childhood through a process of social learning. We learn behaviours from watching those around us, most notably our care-givers and other authority figures.
'Over time, such behaviours are reinforced through reward and punishment. Take unhealthy eating habits, for example. Food might have been used to reward and punish behaviour: "You can have some sweets if you're good," or "You can't have any sweets if you're naughty". By using sweets in this way, a child soon learns they're immensely valuable and may continue to crave them later in life.'
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Ready to break those unhealthy habits?
Yes, it may be harder to break an ingrained unhealthy habit – but it certainly doesn't mean it can't be done. Taking a look back at our parents' health and lifestyle behaviours can help us recognise how we many have learned to behave in a similar way. And by recognising that original trigger – no matter how long ago it may have been – we can start to make changes for the better today.
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The key lies in the present, however. 'Try to become aware of the triggers that lead to your unhealthy behaviour,' suggests Dr Arroll. 'Using my example of eating sweets, for instance, note what's happening at the time and how you feel before and after indulging. The drivers for this behaviour, which may well stem from early life, will gradually become clear and can be addressed.'
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Of course, you don't have to go it alone. There is plenty of free advice, support and useful programmes available for anyone who wants to break a long-held unhealthy habit – whether it's giving up smoking (www.nhs.uk/smokefree), quitting alcohol (www.alcoholconcern.org.uk) or taking up exercise for the first time (www.nhs.uk/LiveWell/couch-to-5k.aspx). Speak to your GP about the approach that may best suit you and what's available in your area.
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