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Advancing the field of geroscience

Geriatric epidemiologist Parminder Raina is the founding director of the new McMaster Institute of Geroscience -- the first of its kind in Canada.
Advancing the field of geroscience

Parminder Raina

Is 80 the new 60? It will be if Parminder Raina has his way.

A geriatric epidemiologist and Canada Research Chair in Geroscience at McMaster, Raina is leading one of the largest and most comprehensive studies ever done on health and aging. Its aim is to understand the factors that influence how we age and find ways to prevent, slow or cure age-related diseases so we can live healthier for longer.

With Canadians aged 85 and over now the fastest-growing segment of the population, studying how people age is more important than ever before.

“We are undergoing a demographic shift of epic proportions,” says Raina, whose earlier work with the Health Canada-sponsored Canadian Study on Health and Aging(CLSA) explored the prevalence of dementia among Canadian seniors.

“During the next two decades, the number of seniors will double. We now have more centenarians than ever before, and not all of them are senile and functionally dependent. Many live very full lives.”

Understanding how we age, why we each age differently, and what causes disease and disability as we grow older is critical to our ability to develop programs and interventions that will stave off poor health and promote independent and healthy living for as long as possible.

With a national team of more than 160 researchers and collaborators, the CLSA is following 50,000 randomly selected men and women between the ages of 45 and 85 over a 20-year period to learn why some people live longer and others don’t. Major funders of this project are the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR),the Canada Foundation for Innovation and Ministry of Research Innovation in Ontario, and other participating provinces.

McMaster’s Innovation Park in Hamilton is home to the CLSA national coordinating centre, and one of 11 data collection sites across the country. It’s also where the 340 million anticipated bits of data from blood and urine samples, cognitive and physical assessments, and interviews and questionnaires completed by participants will be sent and stored. Facilities include a state-of-the-art biobank equipped with 31 cryofreezers and a lab equipped with a high-throughput robotic workstation that can test for biomarkers associated with aging process as well as age-related diseases. 

More than 38,000 Canadians have been recruited since 2011, and the study will reach its goal of 50,000 participants in 2015. The first wave of data – gleaned from telephone interviews with the first 20,000 CLSA participants – will be released this summer.

The other group of participants is asked to visit a data collection site, first when they sign up for the study, then every three years thereafter. This allows researchers to monitor changing biological, medical, psychological, social, lifestyle and economic aspects of the peoples’ lives.

“We want to know how each aspect – alone and in combination – impacts the health and development of disease and disability as people age,” says Raina.

“Genetics plays a factor, we know, but there are other influences that can put us on one path vs. another. Children leave home, people retire, there’s economic gain or loss. Midlife brings all sorts of transitions, especially for women who are undergoing biological changes such as menopause. How do these transitions affect people’s health, and how do they adapt? What role do communities, social support, community and health systems play? How does living in an urban or rural environment impact the aging process?”

It’s a cell-to-society approach that will yield a mine of rich data that can be used by researchers worldwide to examine diseases of the circulatory system, the brain, the musculoskeletal system, respiratory system and endocrine/metabolic systems.

“We know that the changes in our body that come with aging represent a common risk factor for disease,” says Raina, who as is holds the Endowed Labarge Chair in Optimal Aging. He has conducted  numerous leading-edge studies on aging and disease prevention.

“What we learn from this could tell us a lot about how chronic inflammation is linked to cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease; how responses to stress can accelerate aging and risk of disease; how work history, wealth contribute to our health and well-being; and more.”

By taking an integrated approach to the study of disease and disability associated with aging, Raina has advanced the field of geroscience and breaking walls between disciplines to get gerontologists, geriatricians, biologists, psychologists and others to look at the science of aging from a holistic perspective.

“I started talking to people on campus and found that there were more than 50 faculty members who were working in the area of aging but never said so,” he recalls. He began campaigning for a university-wide virtual institute that would bring them all under one umbrella.

Approved in April by the University’s Board of Governors, the McMaster Institute of GeroScience will be the first of its kind in Canada to bring together interdisciplinary groups of faculty members and postgraduate students to conduct collaborative cutting-edge research on aging.

“There is no other institution better equipped to do this,” argues Raina. “We have the kind of capacity that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Canada – but for us to establish leadership in Canada and internationally we need to attract resources to create infrastructure like Big Data Centre, an aging mouse colony, a technology centre – that will make us competitive to to attract funding from research agencies.”

The new Institute will be closely linked with another initiative close to Raina’s heart, the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal, a web site dedicated to making the best and most up-to-date research evidence on healthy aging available free of charge (and in both official languages) to the public, researchers, health-care professionals and policymakers.

“It’s one thing to generate research; it’s another thing to get it into the hands of those who can make decisions,” says the director of the CIHR-funded McMaster Evidence Review and Synthesis Centre. Based in Hamilton, the Centre provides synthesized research evidence that can be used to inform clinical practice.

Launched in April, the Portal is an initiative of the Labarge Optimal Aging Initiative, which was created with a $10-million donation from businesswoman and McMaster alum Suzanne Labarge. It’s the first online resource anywhere to appraise research on aging from around the world, and tell people what works and what doesn’t.

If this sounds like a master plan to position McMaster as a national and global leader in the field of aging, it is. Because global, says Raina, is the only place to be.

“No single country can do this alone. We need sample sizes in the hundreds of thousands to speed up the research and allow us to answer questions and evaluate policies in a very short time.”

He currently has two proposals before the European Union. One, involving 15 countries, would look at how urbanization impacts aging.

“More and more people are living in urban centres. Cities have more congestion and pollution, but they also provide better access to health care and community services. We want to examine the tradeoffs to understand the overall impact.”

Another one looking to examine how multiple morbidity affects the functions of older people. “Do different combinations have different effects on functioning, and how long people live or how early they die?”

Knowing this could have a dramatic effect on the quality of life for those living with two or more chronic conditions. “If you have high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis and diabetes, you may be taking six or seven different medications. All of them influence the way you function. Maybe we can get rid of some that are not as important as others.”

For Raina, it’s all about giving people the knowledge to make informed decisions. “We want those who need complex care to get the right kind, and those who are living independently to be able to do so for as long as possible. And that’s a very achievable goal.”