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Dean of Applied Health Science
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Helping People Live Long, Strong, Healthy Lives
University of Waterloo Dean of Applied Health Sciences, Susan Elliott Speaks to the Research and Collaborative Partnership that is Improving Life at Every Stage
Nearly 20 years ago, the Canadian Medical Association identified the challenge of caring for an aging population as the most pressing problem facing the Canadian healthcare system. It is within this context that University of Waterloo’s Applied Health Sciences faculty finds its raison d’etre.
“One of our strategic priorities for the next four years is to prepare our students to take on the challenges that lie ahead,” says Dr. Susan Elliott, and Dean of the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences. “And there is no greater issue than the aging population. People are living ten, 20 years longer. And that should be a celebration – not a problem. We are committed to addressing this challenge as a team, and collaboratively through partnership. It’s not a road we can travel alone.”
The faculty’s collaborative research is aimed at promoting health, preventing illness and optimizing life and well being, across the entire life course. Applied Health Sciences researchers work closely with partners including the World Health Organization, the Public Health Agency of Canada, the International Society of Biomechanics, industry partners such as RBC, and with other UW faculties such as the School of Engineering and School of Planning to put together the pieces that will enable our population to live strong and age with grace and good health.
“We begin the aging process the minute we are born,” says Elliott. “The decisions we make in our younger years govern how we’ll be in old age. We need to put the focus on helping people live long, strong, healthy lives at every stage of life.”
At one end of the spectrum, the Faculty puts the focus on youth health, with research programs such as the Propel Centre for Population funded by the Canadian Cancer Society and UW; a collaborative enterprise focused on tobacco control, youth health, and capacity development. Scientists at Propel have developed tools such as the popular mobile phone app “Crush the Crave&dsquo; designed to prevent young adults from picking up cigarettes, and to help those that have put them down.
In another youth related research initiative, Dr. Scott Leatherdale, Associate Professor with the UW School of Public Health and Health Systems (a division of AHS) has focused his research on the connection between environmental contexts (physical and social) and cancer risk behavior. Leatherdale and his research team is tracking over 50,000 teenagers on an annual basis, looking at seven modifiable risk factors for disease: smoking, marijuana use, binge drinking, being overweight/obese, physical inactivity, sedentary lifestyle, and inadequate intake of fruits and vegetables. Data from this study is then compiled into an annual school based report that presents the overall health status of a student population, providing school board administration and principals with vital information that can be used in the development of risk prevention programs, such as smoking cessation or health eating initiatives.
At the other end of the aging spectrum, the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences is, in Elliott’s own words, a “poster child” for aging research, with research programs and collaborative partnerships that examine all aspects of our elder years, from retirement, to aging in place, to Alzheimer and other causes of dementia and long term care.
To better understand the retirement years, UW AHS has formed a research partnership with RBC, creation of Your Future By Design Retirement Research Centre, focused on quality of life in retirement including health, leisure, wellness, lifestyle, financial, science arts and technology.
Addressing the challenge of improving quality of life for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, the Murray Alzheimer Research and Education Program (MAREP), which recently celebrated it’s 20th anniversary, is a research initiative with the goal of improving dementia care practices in Canada. MAREP was highlighted as a leader in dementia care at the Alzheimer Disease International conference held in Toronto in 2011.
The InterRAI research group, also based at the School of Public Health and Health Systems (a division of AHS), is an international collaborative to improve the quality of life of vulnerable persons through a seamless comprehensive assessment system. The program’s massive research program, with data instruments designed by UW researchers, gathers data on any person of 65 going into long term care to determine how best to treat people in long term care, while informing service delivery and public policy decisions.
Dr. Paul Stolee, Associate Professor in the School of Public Health and Health Systems has devoted his research over the last several years to ‘InfoRehab’ a research program investigating the use of health information and health information systems in the rehabilitation of older persons as they transition across care settings. Other faculty members within the department of Kinesiology are studying aspects of senior mobility seeking to prevent and mitigate falls. Dr. Andrew Laing, Assistant Professor, Kinesiology, is collaborating with private industry to develop flooring that can prevent injury during a fall. And other Kinesiology researchers have collaborated with UW’s engineer to develop sensors that measure gait and determine the risk of a fall. Finally, Dr. Stuart McGill, a world recognized professor of spine mechanics is working with the seniors to provide incredibly useful guidance in how to fall, and how to recover from a fall.
And finally, in November 2013, ground broke on a pioneering innovation institute for aging on the north campus of UW, the product of a partnership between the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging (RAI), Schlegal Villages, and Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning. This innovation centre will serve as a home for UW Applied Health Sciences research and innovation on topics such as brain health and vascular aging, heart disease, treatment of heart failure in long-term care and senior nutrition. The 30,000 square foot research facility will be built directly adjacent to a new Schlegel Village 192 bed long term care facility, allowing faculty, staff and students to work and apply their learning with residents and staff from the adjacent home.
Dean Elliott glows with pride when speaking of her strategic plan, which will govern her Faculty’s work over the next four years, bringing together elements of world-class research, knowledge sharing, and collaboration with academic and industry partners.
She speaks to a Ugandan proverb that provided the inspiration for AHS’s strategic plan. “The proverb says, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ As soon as I heard it I knew it would serve as the inspiration for all we’re trying to achieve within this Faculty. Transforming aging from a problem we have to deal with as a society, into a stage of life we will celebrate is no easy or short-term task. It will impact everything –– from the way we structure our cities, to intergenerational learning, to our healthcare delivery. But I believe we have all the pieces we need to help people live long, strong and healthy lives.”