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How to create generational health

Four things anyone can do to leave a legacy of wellness for their loved ones.

As a life insurance agency, Haven Life is big on building intergenerational wealth. We know the power of financial security, and how it can support families for generations, especially with the right things, like having life insurance.

But here’s something else that matters to us: intergenerational health. No, it’s not because they rhyme. It’s because both concern learned behaviors that can have an outsized impact on your overall well-being. And just as many of us learn fiscal literacy through the example (good or bad) of our parents, and hope to pass along the lessons we’ve learned to our children (if we have them), health is something we inherit from our families, and hope to model for the next generation of young people.

To find out more about how it works, why it matters, and what you can do about it, we consulted new research and spoke with a wellness expert to learn what we can all do better.

In this article:

What is intergenerational health?

Simply put, intergenerational health is a term for the ways in which our family history affects our health, and the ways our health affects future members of our family and other young people. As with wealth, health is tied to a range of factors, from our DNA to our income, from our family’s wealth to where we live. Think of all these factors as a spider’s web, with you (and your health) at the nexus.

And just as all of us appreciate the benefits of added wealth, we also long to be as healthy as possible, and want that for younger generations as well. Understanding that health is inherited, and can be passed along — recent research suggests that as much as 25 percent of the variation in human lifespan is determined by genetics — is the first step in getting healthier, and helping the next generation get healthier, too.

How health can be passed down

Let’s start with the obvious: Your DNA. Genetics can affect the likelihood of diseases like cancer, diabetes, mental illness, and heart disease, and are a significant contributor to how long you’ll live. They’re also (to a certain extent) outside your control. That said, you can control how you respond to or even preempt those conditions. For example, if diabetes runs in your family, you can choose to eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise, which will reduce your chances of getting diabetes yourself. But gaining this knowledge means talking with your family about their health issues, passing down this information the same way your relatives might tell a favorite story about your parents, or provide the meaning of a beloved family heirloom.

Other important factors include income and wealth, as well as race (which, as we know, impacts income and wealth). If your family is among those who have historically been marginalized or disenfranchised, you likely have a higher risk for health issues. As one recent study shows, “racial differences in health outcomes in the United States are widespread and stark.” The reasons for this are varied and complex, but ultimately come down to the same issues that lead to the racial wealth gap — systemic racism has denied families of color access to better health care, and to healthier ways of living (such as neighborhoods far removed from sources of pollution). One recent study showed that doctors often have implicit bias that leads them to offer better care to white patients. Understanding this level of systemic racism is important to optimizing your health — indeed, yet another recent study showed that Black men receive more effective care from Black doctors.

And then, of course, are the habits you’ve developed around your own health, especially during the time you are expecting. According to Slate, “A wealth of research now supports the notion that maternal well-being before, during, and after pregnancy has substantial long-term health effects for children. Children born to mothers with high levels of stress hormones during pregnancy are more likely to become addicted to nicotine as adults. Offspring of mothers who smoke have higher rates of obesity and poorer cardiovascular health decades later. Pregnant women who struggle with mental illness before pregnancy have more childbirth complications including low–birth weight babies and stillbirths.”

While all of this can feel grim for younger generations, knowledge is power, and awareness of these factors can empower you to make the best health decisions of you and your family. Here are four things you can do to help your own health — and that of future generations.

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1. Focus on sleep

Sleep deprivation has been deemed a “public health epidemic” and is related to many negative health outcomes and diseases. And for children, less sleep can lead to obesity. According to one study, “Reduced sleep duration has been linked to seven of the 15 leading causes of death in the U.S., including cardiovascular disease, malignant neoplasm, cerebrovascular disease, accidents, diabetes, septicemia, and hypertension.” So yeah: Getting your Zs should be a top priority, especially if you already have poor health or a preexisting condition.

One thing to do is to work on creating a nightly sleep routine and have healthy sleep hygiene. (Meaning: Keep your phone and other blue light-emitting devices away from the bed.) Commit to a nightly routine that has no screens for at least two hours before bed, if possible, and primes your brain for relaxation. Take a bath, do a puzzle, meditate, or read before bed. Choose something you enjoy and relaxes you and try to stick to a sleep schedule prioritizing seven to nine hours of sleep per night to ensure optimal health. Doing so will put you in a better state of mind the next day, and will model the importance of sleep for your family.

Struggling to get enough rest? Your body might not be active enough during the day. Which brings us to…

2. Eat healthier and exercise

It might be obvious, but that’s just because it’s important. What you eat and how much you move has a big impact on your health. In today’s world, it’s hard to completely avoid sugar and processed foods, so instead of being stringent with diet rules, a better goal might be to try and eat more fruits and vegetables. That way you’re focusing on healthy additions (what you gain) and not just subtraction (what you’re giving up).

Also, making regular movement and exercise a thing can help. Many of us are sedentary and sitting more than generations before us and it takes a conscious effort to keep moving. “Forcing myself to get up and take a walk or run even just for 20 minutes a day makes a huge difference,” explains Tracy Kim, CEO of digital wellness and exercise app Aaptiv, which is available at no cost for eligible Haven Term policyholders through the Haven Life Plus rider.

One thing you can do is to make it fun. Do you like dancing? Roller skating? Surfboarding? Hiking? Sometimes it’s just about finding which type of exercise nourishes your soul and keeps you interested and engaged. On top of that, one way to help intergenerational health is to help your children integrate positive habits into their lifestyle.

“For our son, we have a twice-weekly family workout session that is scheduled over Zoom with a trainer and one with Aaptiv,” says Kim. “It’s a good way to spend time with the family with a nice side benefit of instilling that habit into our son. He sees it as a fun activity.” And if a healthy habit is also fun, it stands to reason that it has a better chance of sticking around — even for a lifetime.

3. Take care of your mental health

The pandemic has caused another crisis — a mental health one. The isolation, lack of support, and abandonment of routines and social networks have taken a toll on everyone. If your health history includes mental health conditions, you may be more at risk.

It’s important to continue with your social support network over Zoom and hopefully in-person as more people get vaccinated. When it comes to managing mental health, diet, exercise, and sleep are also very important. On top of that, spending time on hobbies and things that bring you purpose is key. And again, potentially multigenerational — you might inherit your love of playing tennis from your mom, and then pass it along to your own kids. (Having an active family hobby can also make the holidays less stressful, too.)

You also want to create an environment with your children where they feel comfortable to reach out for help if they need to. If needed, you can find a therapist at Open Path Collective and look into medication from a psychiatrist. If you’re in crisis, you can reach out to a crisis counselor by texting HOME to 741741. 

4. Talk with your kids

Though all of the above can help you and your child’s health, this might be the most important thing: Talking honestly and openly about the health challenges you and your relatives have faced (and, we hope, overcome).

There are conditions (from diabetes and high cholesterol to certain types of cancer) that might have a higher likelihood of getting passed down, and should be considered as your children create their own eating habits and lifestyle. “Having upfront conversations about health conditions in the family and being cognizant of that is important,” Kim says. “These things can be easily monitored.”

You don’t want to scare your children, but you also don’t want to keep them in the dark. Kim suggests discussing these topics around age 11-13 when puberty is hitting and children are becoming more curious about the changes in their body and health.

Putting it all together

Yes, you may be predisposed to certain health conditions, but you can build intergenerational health and work things in your favor. According to doctor, author and podcast host Mark Hyman: “What you eat, how you move, how you restore your system, along with your thoughts, feelings and social connections, regulate your genes. Those genes end up creating the expression of who you are and how you are. You can turn on genes that create health or disease, weight gain or weight loss.” In other words, it’s all connected within you — and that in turn is connected by what’s around you, from your family to your work environment. And all that can be inherited and passed on.

One way to keep building positive health habits is to track your progress and follow your growth. Kim says her son keeps tabs on how many vegetables he eats, while she records the minutes she works out, and her parents log how many times they work out. It’s like budgeting… for health, and it can help you improve and see how far you’ve come. That way you know you’re making a positive difference in your own health and for future generations. And what could matter more?

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About Melanie Lockert

Read more by Melanie Lockert

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

Haven Life is not authorized to give tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or investment advice. Individuals are encouraged to seed advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

Our disclosures

Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (DTC and ICC17DTC in certain states, including NC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111-0001 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. In NY, Haven Term is DTC-NY 1017. In CA, Haven Term is DTC-CA 042017. Haven Term Simplified is a Simplified Issue Term Life Insurance Policy (ICC19PCM-SI 0819 in certain states, including NC) issued by the C.M. Life Insurance Company, Enfield, CT 06082. Policy and rider form numbers and features may vary by state and may not be available in all states. Our Agency license number in California is OK71922 and in Arkansas 100139527.

MassMutual is rated by A.M. Best Company as A++ (Superior; Top category of 15). The rating is as of Aril 1, 2020 and is subject to change. MassMutual has received different ratings from other rating agencies.

Haven Life Plus (Plus) is the marketing name for the Plus rider, which is included as part of the Haven Term policy and offers access to additional services and benefits at no cost or at a discount. The rider is not available in every state and is subject to change at any time. Neither Haven Life nor MassMutual are responsible for the provision of the benefits and services made accessible under the Plus Rider, which are provided by third party vendors (partners). For more information about Haven Life Plus, please visit: https://havenlife.com/plus.html

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