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NeuroTeam brings a multi-faceted toolkit to problem of dementia

Scholars in healthy brain aging address a complex and urgent issue
May 28, 2015
Lorraine Venturato is co-leader of the Dementia and Cognitive Disorders NeuroTeam, which will conduct research into the varied causes of dementia, focusing on early identification and intervention. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Lorraine Venturato is co-leader of the Dementia and Cognitive Disorders NeuroTeam, which will conduct research into the varied causes of dementia, focusing on early identification and intervention. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

Researchers from a number of faculties at the University of Calgary are exploring early identification of and interventions for dementia — a collective term that describes a group of symptoms including memory loss, challenges with thinking, and decision-making — the single most expensive medical condition in the Canadian health-care system.

The Healthy Brain Aging Research Theme, part of the new Brain and Mental Health Research Strategy, is gathering expertise from across disciplines to create the Dementia and Cognitive Disorders NeuroTeam.

“We have a lot of capacity in this area across the university. Researchers across medicine, nursing, social work, kinesiology and psychology for example, are doing some exciting work across the spectrum of early diagnosis and assessment through to practical aspects of care and quality of life,” says Lorraine Venturato, PhD, an associate professor in the Faculty of Nursing and co-leader of the Dementia and Cognitive Disorders NeuroTeam.

“Part of our aim is to develop a way of moving from basic or bench science, through to actual practice and considering implications for society, for policy, for practice and for education,” says Venturato, who also holds a Chair in Gerontology.

The Dementia and Cognitive Disorders NeuroTeam will conduct research into the varied causes of dementia and other cognitive impairments, including vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, focusing on early identification and intervention. The team is also a key collaborator in the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging.

Integrating research with community, consumers and clients

Venturato says one of the challenges for research in dementia treatment and care is that people living with dementia are often older adults who may be vulnerable, marginalized and “voiceless.” That can make trying to approach the issue at a social level very complex. “It is a growing area, so we are looking at ways to work with the broader community,” she says. Collaboration — in the form of networks and partnerships — is central to the Brain and Mental Health Research Strategy, and Venturato sees opportunities to work with other institutions such as the City of Calgary, continuing and long-term care services, and the Foothills Medical Centre. “As our population ages, it’s become apparent that our social systems aren’t built with this group in mind. To address this, we are finding ways that we can integrate research and education into practice and policy to enhance quality of life and quality of care for people living with dementia in Alberta and beyond.”

While considerable amounts of research indicate that exercising the brain helps prevent the onset of dementia, scholars are beginning to gain a better understanding of the specific types of mental exercise that are the most effective for keeping dementia at bay. 

“While it’s good to do Sudoku and crossword puzzles and things like that, it’s even better to teach your brain to lay down new pathways continuously throughout your lifespan,” says Venturato. “As adults, we tend to do things that we already know how to do, so laying down new brain pathways is really about learning something new — earning an instrument, learning a language — those kinds of things are really good for your brain.”

As we add to the knowledge about the brain and dementia, she expects some of the stigma and negative assumptions about people with the disorder will fall away and be replaced with more understanding that dementia is an illness, not a personality trait.

Aging population means increasing incidents of dementia

As Canada's population ages, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are growing concerns. By 2031, more than one in five people in Alberta will be 65 or older. With that aging population, dementia is poised to become an even bigger financial burden on our health-care system.

“It’s not necessarily caused by age, but it certainly is age-related in that the incidents of dementia rise as we get older,” says Venturato.  “Anywhere you have an aging population you’re going to have an increasing incidence of dementia as well. It’s exciting to be part of a university-wide initiative that will expand our knowledge and treatment of this disorder.”

ABOUT THE UNIVERSITY'S RESEARCH VISION: The University of Calgary is uniquely positioned to find solutions for key global research challenges. The Strategic Research Plan harnesses the university’s exceptional capacity in these areas by focusing on six themes: Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow; New Earth-Space Technologies; Infections, Inflammation and Chronic Diseases; Human Dynamics in a Changing World; Engineering Solutions for Health; and Brain and Mental Health. Learn more about how the University of Calgary’s Eyes High vision aligns our research resources for the benefit of communities at home and around the world.