Alain Beaudet, president of CIHR, and I had lunch today with Dr. Yves Joanette. Yves is the Scientific Director of one of CIHR’s thirteen Institutes, the Institute of Aging. In addition to serving as Scientific Director, Yves is also a professor at the Faculty of medicine of the Université de Montréal and Lab Director at the Research Center of the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal.
I enjoy meeting with Yves. He is an upbeat person who is always immaculately dressed. I have never seen him not wearing a bow-tie. And he speaks impeccable French and English. In spite of his senior leadership role in the Canadian research community, Yves still has the heart of a young explorer. He becomes animated and his eyes twinkle when talking of his research into the health problems of aging.
I met Yves when I interviewed for the vice-president position at CIHR. He was one of the interviewers on the selection committee. Yves’ perpetual smile relaxed me in an otherwise uneasy situation.
And while still an astronaut, I participated with Yves in a workshop co-hosted by the Institute of Aging and the Canadian Space Agency. What do aging and space have in common? Well, there are several physiological changes in astronauts’ bodies during long duration spaceflight that mirror the changes that occur with aging in a terrestrial setting. For instance, the heart becomes deconditioned, muscles atrophy and bones demineralize as a consequence of living in a weightless environment. Human bodies need to be stressed by the gravito-inertial forces of daily life on Earth to maintain cardiovascular and musculoskeletal integrity. Astronauts in space do not experience these forces as we do on Earth so we dedicate ourselves to two hours each day of aerobic and resistance-type exercises to minimize our deconditioning.
A decline of physiological function with aging is partly related to lower levels of activity. I am determined to remain physically active throughout my geriatric years. In fact, the exercises that I performed on-orbit and in the immediate post-flight period after return to Earth were designed to load my antigravity muscles and bones and to enhance my control of stability. I intend to continue these kind of exercises for many years.
Anyway … the topic of the lunch-time discussion between Yves, Alain and I was not space but Alzheimer’s Disease. This is a disease that currently afflicts 500 000 Canadians but will affect 1,1 million within a generation. This means that the lives of most Canadians are somehow affected by this disease. My grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. It was difficult for me and my other family members to witness the changes in my grandfather’s behaviour and cognitive capacity in his later years. And of course it is difficult for the patients themselves who lose control and their independence of life.
For this reason, a CIHR Institute of Aging research priority is the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of this illness. One of CIHR’s major research initiatives (we call them ‘Signature Initiatives’) is the International Collaborative Study on Alzheimer’s Disease (i.e. Alzheimer’s is a world-wide phenomenon). Yves’ Institute leads this initiative with participation from several other Institutes.
At lunch I asked Yves what are the risk factors for Alzheimer’s. He said that the number one risk factor was aging, which made me laugh. But this was not a trivial answer. The more you age, the more the risk increases. The incidence of Alzheimer’s for people 65 years and older is 7%. But for those older than 85 years, the incidence is 45% – a dramatic increase.
This rising incidence is offset by research news about countermeasures. My mother does puzzles or plays card games with her friends every evening as a means to keep her mind sharp. This is actually helpful. Anything that we can do to enhance cardiovascular and cognitive health can delay the manifestation of clinical symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Learning a second language as an adult has been shown to be helpful. While healthy lifestyle habits may not do anything to abate the onset of Alzheimer’s pathophysiology, they can help preserve function for a longer period of time.
I always enjoy meeting with Yves Joanette. He is an inspiration. He speaks with fervour about the search for an effective ‘marker’ of the disease that would alert a physician to the earliest onset of a patient’s disease. Yves’ research goal is not simply to extend life, but to “increase the quality of extended life”. As the Canadian population ages, Yves’ research will become more and more vital.
September 21, 2012