If there are a few key secrets to aging well, a nationwide, two-decade long survey of Canadians might unlock those truths.
Two-time cancer survivor Eric Carswell, 76, has his own rules of thumb – don’t drink alcohol and don’t smoke. “I don’t smoke or drink, and I used to do both, and there are health effects from both,” he offers.
Carswell is Greater Victoria’s very first participant in what is called the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA), an unprecedented data gathering exercise that aims to plumb the granular details of the health and lifestyles of 50,000 Canadians, between the ages of 45 and 85, over 20 years.
The Victoria resident led the way for randomly selected Greater Victoria residents, 331 so far, who have visited the region’s CLSA data collection centre, housed within the Gorge Road Hospital.
The poking and prodding is comprehensive – technicians conduct bone density scans, hearing, eye, cardiovascular, cognition, strength and balance tests. The centre takes blood and urine samples for study of biological markers for age related diseases.
Researchers also gather detailed lifestyle and socio-economic information on volunteers through interviews, and will use provincial health records to track medical issues that arise.
The centre can test five or six people per day, at about three hours per person. Carswell laughs as he recalls that his visit in August took more than seven hours. CLSA staff had a few computer kinks to work out.
“They want to find out how to advise people by looking at what the sickies do, and not doing that, and looking at the healthy ones, and doing that,” Carswell said, succinctly summing up the goals of the CLSA.
“I didn’t mind at all,” he says, referring to the long interview and testing process. “I believe in volunteering and it sounded interesting being in the study.”
The Gorge Hospital CLSA data collection centre is one of 11 in Canada, and is aiming for 1,000 volunteers per year for the next three years. Once that three-year mark is hit, and every three years after, they’ll cycle through the same people again – or at least those who want to participate. The University of Victoria is hosting a tele-collection site, where another 2,800 randomly selected cohort of people in B.C. are interviewed over the phone.
The drive behind the study is to address the “age tsunami” poised to wash over Canada, as remarked by Holly Tuokko, the director for the Centre of Aging at the University of Victoria, which is one of the university partners in the nationwide study.
The number of people age 65 will double and age 85 will quadruple in the next decade, she told guests at the formal opening of the data collection centre on Thursday. Understanding factors behind aging well will become increasingly critical for a growing number of Canadians and for policy makers.
“For individuals and as a society, we want to know how to age well to keep costs down and to keep quality of life up,” Tuokko said. “(With the CLSA) we’ll be able to look at individuals from how their cells are functioning up to how they function in society. This is ground-breaking in terms of the depth of information.”
Keeping track of thousands of individuals and safeguarding their information, and having those participants return is an enormous task, admits Debra Sheets, one of the lead CLSA investigators in Victoria and an assistant professor in the UVic school of nursing.
The researchers try to make the information collection process as pleasant as possible, and participants are paid a small stipend, but the study is largely dependent on the ongoing goodwill of volunteers.
“With such a long study, attrition is an issue. It’s not just about death, but people not wanting to participate any more,” Sheets said. “We try to make it as comfortable as possible.
“We are lucky. We have a lot of older adults here (in Victoria),” she notes. “This is an aging laboratory.”
Decades of less comprehensive studies on health and aging have demonstrated that health outcomes are determined about 70 per cent by lifestyle and environment, and 30 per cent by genetics, Sheets said. The CLSA will allow researchers to examine the complex and often hidden relationships between biology, environment, psychology and socio-economic standing.
The study will not only benefit Canadians as they enter senior years, she says, but give all Canadians a better understanding of what factors weigh in on long term health.
“We know diet and exercise and the most important predictors of healthy aging,” Sheets said. “But there are interrelated multiple factors we don’t understand. It’s not just about family relations and exercise.”
Lynne Young, the other lead investigator in Victoria and a professor in the UVic school of nursing, expects the CLSA database to definitively demonstrate the link, for instance, between heart disease and social determinants – such as education and income levels.
Many studies, she says, focus purely on diet and lifestyle, but poverty and other social factors can deeply influence longevity and health.
“This database will allow us to make links for the scientific community and policy makers that we can’t make now,” Young said. “But this is a 20 year project. We need to be patient.”
The CLSA study selects participants through a system of random phone calls to households in the region. For more on the study, see clsa-elcv.ca.