The mother of all aging studies

What is the relationship between hearing loss and social function in older Canadians? How does menopause affect mental well-being? What are the risk factors for falls among seniors?

A participant in the CLSA gets a blood pressure reading. (courtesy: CLSA)

A participant in the CLSA gets a blood pressure reading. (courtesy: CLSA)

Researchers across the country hope to answer these questions and others with the help of  the most comprehensive study of aging in the world. Led by investigators at McMaster, McGill and Dalhousie universities, the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA) is amassing reams of data on more than 50,000 older adults.

In 2012, researchers began collecting information on the biological, medical, psychological, social, lifestyle and economic aspects of the lives of volunteers between the ages of 45 and 85.

“This should have happened 10 to 15 years ago,” says McMaster University’s Parminder Raina, lead investigator on the study. “By 2030, one in four Canadians will be over 65. We know a bit about today’s seniors, but baby boomers are a different cohort.”

Raina, an epidemiologist with an expertise in aging populations, is using the CLSA to study the health impacts of multiple chronic conditions among older adults.

“After the age of 70, the majority of people have at least two chronic conditions,” he says. “We want to understand which combinations are a problem. There is very little information on this.”

Raina expects the CLSA will yield practical insights into how to treat someone with cardio problems and cancer, or arthritis and hypertension. He is one of about 20 researchers who have applied to use parts of the database, but the CLSA is expected to attract many more research projects as longitudinal information becomes available.

Banking biological samples

Ultimately, 20,000 randomly-selected participants will take part in an in-depth telephone interview about their health and well-being. In St. John’s, Halifax, Sherbrooke, Montreal, Ottawa, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria and Surrey, researchers will visit the remaining 30,000 in their homes for in-person interviews. This group will also receive a comprehensive medical assessment, including evaluations of their hearing, heart function, bone density and mobility.

Every three years, investigators will reconnect with participants to gather updated information and they expect to amass at least 20 years worth of data.

Launched with the help of $50 million in grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the CLSA will make results, including biological samples, available for about 25 years after data collection stops.

“If we are going to inform policy decisions at the federal, provincial or municipal levels, we need robust evidence about what happens to people as they age,” says Raina.

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