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Aging research gets a boost

by Sharon Gray

With the fastest increase in an aging population in Canada, there are challenges and opportunities in Newfoundland and Labrador to develop relevant solutions in aging research.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Applied Health Research (NLCAHR) is tackling the issue head on, and its efforts received a major boost March 31 at the start of a conference on New Directions in Aging Research: Implications for Health Services and Policy.Dr. Sharon Buehler, right, played a major role in organizing the conference on New Directions in Aging Research held March 31. Dr. Stephen Bornstein, left, is the director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Applied Health Research, which sponsored the conference. Speakers included (second from left), Dr. Parminder Raina, lead principal investigator of the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging; and Suzanne Brake, director of seniors and aging, policy and planning, Department of Community Health and Services. (Photo by HSIMS)

Ross Wiseman, minister of health and community services, led off with the announcement of $200,000 in funding this year to support research projects on issues relating to aging and seniors. The minister has committed to providing on-going support for research on aging within the framework of the Provincial Healthy Aging Policy, launched in July 2007.

The funding, to be administered by the NLCAHR, will support research grants focusing on the needs of individuals as they age.

“Good policy requires evidence from research and good research requires funding,” said Dr. Stephen Bornstein, director of the NLCAHR. “This is a great way of getting research done right here in Newfoundland and Labrador that looks specifically at the questions and issues that are relevant or unique to our provincial population. This core base of funding will allow us to leverage other grants.”

Following this high note, research leaders from across Canada and local experts settled down to a full day of presentations and discussion on emerging issues in aging research and how those issues will affect health services and policy in the province.

Dr. Anne Martin-Matthews, scientific director of the Institute of Aging, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, said the targeted research topics for the institute are cognitive impairment in aging, mobility on aging and a longitudinal study on aging.

The lead principal investigator of the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, Dr. Parminder Raina, said that genes account for only 25 per cent of what determines longevity – other factors are nutrition, lifestyle and environment.

The study, which involves more than 160 researchers in 26 institutions, will include 50,000 people followed over 20 years, with an in-depth data collection on 30,000 people at 10 sites including St. John’s. The first selection of study participants will be made late in 2008 with the remaining 30,000 enrolled in 2010.

Suzanne Brake, director of seniors and aging, policy and planning, Department of Health and Community Services, spoke on opportunities and challenges of an aging population.

She noted that the number of people 65 and older in the province was 13.9 per cent of the population in 2006, and this is expected to rise to 20 per cent in less than 10 years. A low fertility rate combined with out-migration and increased longevity all contribute to the province’s high percentage of seniors.

“We need to take action and for that we need the evidence gained through research,” said Ms. Brake.

Dr. Byron Spencer, a professor of economics at McMaster University, made the point that less than 20 per cent of the increase in health care expenditure is related to an aging population. “What is driving costs is more drugs and more intensive hospital times.” He also suggested that lack of long range planning by federal and provincial governments is one of the reasons for increases in health care expenditures.

Other topics addressed at the conference included health aging in healthy places and aging and mental health. Dr. Ken Rockwood, a professor of geriatric medicine at Dalhousie University, described a new Canadian Institutes of Health project in mental health, the Research to Action Program in Dementia (RAPID). This is a national initiative to address the health services gaps between research and practice in the areas of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia diagnosis, treatment and care.

At the conclusion of the day’s discussions, Dr. Bornstein said it is clear that serious challenges around an aging population are coming in Newfoundland and Labrador faster than the rest of Canada, and there is a serious need to do research in health care delivery that is informed from policy makers.

“There’s a kind of urgency that gets people going and the question now is how to use our resources in the most intelligent way to do this research.”.