Understanding the Process of Aging: 20+ year study sheds light on how Canadians are aging

Allen Penney and Lindsay MacDonald
3,000 Nova Scotian volunteers take part in the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging. (Amy Wilson)

Three thousand Nova Scotian volunteers (like Allen Penney, pictured with Lindsay MacDonald) in the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging come to NSHA every three years to be assessed for key indicators of healthy aging. These include bone mineral density, arterial health, body composition, blood pressure, vision, hearing, cognition, gait, hand grip strength, balance, cognitive function, blood markers for inflammation, nutritional status and risk for disease.

Aging is a complex process involving a lot more than the passage of time. Engagement with family, friends and community, access to transportation, services and financial resources, and degree of physical activity are just some of the factors that influence how healthy a person remains, and for how long. The Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA) is learning more.

Citizens and researchers in Nova Scotia and across Canada are working together to understand how well people are aging, what factors have the greatest influence, and how policies and programs impact people's well-being with age.

“We’ve recruited a cohort of 50,000 Canadians—4,500 in Nova Scotia—who were between the ages of 45 and 85 during the study’s enrollment period from 2010 to 2015,” says study co-lead Dr. Susan Kirkland, head of the Department of Community Health & Epidemiology at Dalhousie and Nova Scotia Health Authority. “As we follow people over time, we will gain a clearer picture of the health of our aging population and what’s coming down the road. This will help in planning health and community services.”

Dr. Kirkland and her team are following 1,500 Nova Scotia participants by phone and visit 3,000 others in their homes every three years. The larger group also visits the CLSA data collection site in Halifax for physical assessments.

“In addition to providing us with detailed information about our aging population in Nova Scotia, the CLSA allows us to make comparisons with other provinces,” she says. “It will shed light on what kinds of services, interventions, programs and policies work.”

Thanks to funding from the NSHA Research Fund, Dr. Kirkland’s team is contributing a new health assessment to the CLSA. Postdoctoral fellow Dr. Joshua Armstrong used the funding to create a frailty index, by combining a wide range of health variables collected on CLSA participants. This will be used to establish a baseline frailty score that can be repeated to track frailty over time.

“Tracking frailty will reveal so much about how to provide the best care for people in vulnerable states,” Dr. Kirkland says. “We hope it will also reveal how best to prevent and even reverse it.”

This article is part of Nova Scotia Health Authority Research Annual Report 2017.