Feature: Promoting research into healthy aging

two sets of hands holding
By Crystal Mackay, MA’05

People aged 85 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population in Canada and also have some of the most complex health care needs. That is why Jane Rylett, PhD, says dedicating research attention and resources toward understanding and addressing the health and wellbeing of older adults is such an important endeavour.

As the Scientific Director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)’s Institute of Aging, Rylett is focused on developing research opportunities for researchers and trainees that promote healthy aging and attend to the complex needs that come with the challenges of aging. CIHR is Canada’s funding agency for health research and provides millions of dollars each year to support health research across the country.

Jane Rylett, PhD“Our population is aging rapidly and there are now more people aged 65 and older in Canada than those under 14,” said Rylett. “And so, we have to be concerned about the wellbeing of these individuals.”

With Rylett at the helm, the Institute is being hosted by Western University and located at Robarts Research Institute for at least the next four years.

Studying the health and wellbeing of older adults has been Rylett’s life work. A scientist at Robarts Research Institute and Professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, she has been studying the molecular basis of Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia for much of her career. She was appointed by CIHR into the role of Scientific Director of the Institute of Aging in August 2019.

Rylett and her team were just getting started on national consultations with stakeholders to identify the most pressing priorities for older adults, when the pandemic hit in early 2020. With the virus taking a disproportionate toll on older adults, a component of the Institute’s focus shifted toward research into understanding and mitigating the harms of the pandemic on this population.

“Absolutely the pandemic shone a light on the vulnerability of older adults to the coronavirus,” said Rylett. “We immediately began to shift our focus on the highest priority needs for older adults during the pandemic.”

Working together with researchers and agencies across the country, the Institute identified key topics that needed to be addressed.

The first was determining how or why the disease progression of COVID-19 was different in older adults, and how that might impact response to treatment and vaccines. The second was focused on mental health consequences resulting from the need for older adults to be isolated to reduce their risk of infection.

“We knew that pandemic-related isolation was particularly concerning for older adults who couldn’t see their family members, whose community-based care was cancelled, and who were facing restrictions living in long term care,” said Rylett. How this isolation affected mental health and cognitive health for this segment of the population was of particular concern.

The third priority was infection control and standards for health care in long term care facilities that came to light as a result of the pandemic. Rylett and her team at the CIHR Institute for Aging partnered with the CIHR Institute of Health Services and Policy Research and the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement [now called Healthcare Excellence Canada] to develop a funding opportunity to address these issues. In partnership with other CIHR Institutes and provincial partners, they funded researchers in 22 implementation sciences teams across the country with the goal of evaluating what changes in practice and policy in long term care homes were most beneficial to protecting residents and staff and improving health outcomes during viral outbreaks.

“This is helping us to better understand some of the problems that occurred during the first wave of the pandemic in long term care homes, and best practices to stop it from happening again, not just for COVID-19, but also for other health emergencies and outbreaks like influenza, for example,” she said.

Apart from the pandemic, the Institute is leading the CIHR Dementia Research Strategy and also co-leading the CIHR Healthy Cities Research Initiative. This latter initiative has a particular focus on research that promotes age-friendly communities and has the goal of encouraging healthy aging in the community. They are also supporting research in digital health and technology to allow older adults live independently and successfully at home as long as possible.

In her role as Scientific Director of the Institute, Rylett also acts as a convenor and community-builder to bring together researchers, trainees and organizations focused on age-related health research across the country. As a spokesperson for healthy aging in Canada, she recently presented at the World Health Organization meetings on the development of a research and development blueprint and action plan for dementia research.

“I am involved in activities where I can bring the Canadian perspective to international audiences,” she said. “We are extremely grateful to Robarts and Western for hosting the Institute here, and we look forward to continuing to promote the importance of research across the entire life cycle with particular focus on the aging population in Canada.”