For David Ma, it’s making sure that his kids get enough sleep. For Jess Haines, it’s limiting TV time for her youngsters.

They’re both University of Guelph professors leading a new Guelph research team in a massive interdisciplinary study designed to help cut ballooning health-care costs in Ontario. But as ordinary moms and dads, they both face challenges in ensuring their children learn and follow healthy lifestyles.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

“We have young families of our own,” said Ma, a professor in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences (HHNS). “We can relate to the challenges.”

This fall the team will begin a study designed to help produce a healthier generation less prone to chronic health problems whose mounting costs threaten to swallow large chunks of the province’s budget.

Involving researchers in two colleges on campus, the Guelph Family Health Study (GFHS) will ultimately track 3,000 young families in Guelph Wellington. The project will begin with a one-year pilot study of 50 families this fall.

About half of Canadian health-care costs go to treat the effects of major chronic diseases, notably obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, according to Ma.

“We’re at a tipping point where our health-care dollars are far exceeding capacity,” said Ma, who studies fats and health. “We need a new approach.”

He and other Guelph researchers think that approach should focus more on disease prevention and promotion of better lifestyle choices.

Even as overall health costs continue to climb, only about two per cent of provincial health-care expenditures go toward prevention, said Mike Emes, dean of the College of Biological Science (CBS). “We have to bend the cost curve.”

Likening the new project to the Framingham heart study – a benchmark multi-generational study of thousands of Massachusetts residents – Emes said, “This is for chronic disease what Framingham was for heart disease.”

For the pilot study, they’re recruiting Guelph families with at least one child between 18 months and five years old.

U of G grad students will visit the study families to gather information about body composition, weight and other factors, and to learn about lifestyle habits such as diet, exercise, sleep, and time spent in sedentary activities such as TV-watching and online activity.

The team will make general recommendations to a control group of families and offer tailored suggestions to a second group. At the end of the one-year pilot, they will use surveys, questionnaires and blood tests for genetic biomarkers to see what changes have occurred.

They will also use this year’s results to refine their planned full-blown study of 3,000 families. That study will take place over two decades, allowing researchers to track children into early adulthood.

They hope to learn which early interventions are better than others, including which health-inducing lifestyle changes stick with kids as they grow up. One family might consider changes to diet and meals; another might look at sleep or exercise.

Pointing out that most research has focused on the costs of treating illness, Ma says he hopes this study will provide needed evidence about the effects of preventive health measures. “Prevention research is challenging, it requires a long-term time frame.”

They plan to share recommendations with subject families, health-care providers, and regional and provincial policy-makers.

A researcher in the Department of Family Relations and Nutrition (FRAN), Haines normally follows subjects for about a year at a time. She’s eager to track long-term changes through this study and to learn more about early risk factors to prevent chronic disease decades later.

“It’s about practical, helpful solutions,” she said.

The study brings together faculty members in CBS and the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences, including Profs. David Mutch, Alison Duncan and Lawrence Spriet, HHNS; Emma Allen-Vercoe, Molecular and Cellular Biology; and Paula Brauer and Andrea Buchholz, FRAN.

The group’s research interests cover genetics, gut microbiology, body composition, physical activity, nutrition, clinical health, fats and health, and disease prevention.

They’re working with the Guelph Family Health Team, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health and the Guelph Community Health Centre. Those agencies are helping recruit families for the study, including ensuring that subjects represent various socioeconomic and demographic groups.

“We’re trying to work with the community and agencies to tackle the problem together,” said Ma.

The study tagline is “The Future Feels Better.”

The family health study is part of a larger preventive health research and teaching project at U of G called Health for Life. That initiative’s senior policy adviser is Jonathan Guss, retired CEO of the Ontario Medical Association.

Working with Emes, he helped bring together the Guelph researchers for the proposed family health study two years ago.

The group will seek funding from public and private sources for the study.

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