UNB Research

Healthy Seniors Pilot Project: New Brunswick Brain Health Initiative

Author: UNB Research

Posted on May 17, 2021

Category: Research

Healthy Seniors Pilot Project: New Brunswick Brain Health Initiative

In February, we announced the five UNB projects funded by the Healthy Seniors Pilot Project (HSPP). We've been working with the research teams to help tell their stories and share insight into their research.

Today, we feature Dr. Chris McGibbon and Dr. Pamela Jarrett's work examining how remotely-delivered physical and cognitive excercise programs can reduce seniors' risk of dementia. Their New Brunswick Brain Health Initiative: Preventing Alzheimer’s by Lessening Modifiable Risk (NB-PALM) research project received $2,697,913 in funding for the project.

Who are you?

Dr. Chris McGibbon:

I am a professor in the faculty of kinesiology and senior researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering. I received my PhD from UNB in 1994, and then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School. From 1996-2004, I was a faculty member at the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions, and served as technical director of the MGH Biomotion Laboratory, after which I returned to UNB to take on a faculty role.

My expertise covers the broad spectrum of human movement sciences, primarily focused on mobility and balance disorders in seniors and people with neurological and orthopedic disorders, and the study of advanced rehabilitation technologies. One of my most recent focus areas is on prevention of mobility decline in seniors at risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia.

Dr. Pamela Jarrett:

I am a geriatrician in Horizon Health Network in Saint John and an associate professor of medicine at Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick. I have cared for many people with dementia and their families throughout my career, during which I’ve held administrative, research and teaching roles. I continue to teach and participate in research pertaining to older adults, and my current research focus is on frailty, brain health, dementia and medication appropriateness.

At UNB, our colleagues Dr. Danielle Bouchard, associate professor in the faculty of kinesiology, and Dr. Sandra Magalhaes, a research associate in sociology and part of the research team at UNB’s NB-IRDT (read about some of Dr. Magalhaes’ research here) are our co-applicants on the project and our key collaborators.

In addition to the four of us, our project is supported by a large and diverse team that includes engineers, physicians, nurses, psychologists, kinesiologists, epidemiologists and others.

Our team also represents a very strong cross-institutional collaboration, with participation provincially from UNB, Université de Moncton, Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick, Horizon Health Network and Vitalité Health Network; nationally with University of Western Ontario, Baycrest Hospital in Toronto, Université de Montréal, and others, and; internationally with the University of California, San Diego’s Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study.

These collaborations are part of a national consortium, the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging (CCNA), where we’re able to bring our unique capacities to a national conversation and bring other perspectives into our project. This far-reaching collaboration enables us to have a very rich and robust project, operate in both English and French, engage with new perspectives and build capacity in NB for preventing Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia.

What are you working on?

Our project is called the New Brunswick Brain Health Initiative: Preventing Alzheimer's by Lessening Modifiable risk (NB-PALM). In it, we will offer physical exercises and cognitive enhancing activities to older adults at risk of developing dementia, delivered virtually in their own home. With more older adults connected to computers and tablets, we’re better able to provide this type of prevention strategy directly to older adults where they live.

This has not been done before and offers an opportunity to reach more people across New Brunswick in both languages.

Through the NB-PALM project, we’re hoping to increase New Brunswickers’ knowledge of brain health and the importance of having programs to address it.

We’re about to launch our pilot trial, in which we’ll address the question, is it feasible to deliver virtual brain health interventions in seniors’ homes? Our study will overcome a major barrier – geography and travel – that prevents at-risk seniors from taking part in interventions that we know can prevent or slow down the onset of dementia.

Overall, we’ll measure how well we can deliver these interventions at an individual level by measuring interest and engagement throughout the 16-week timeframe.

In addition, using available population-wide data, we will create a community-level dementia risk score that will allow us to identify which risk factors are linked with greater levels of dementia across New Brunswick, and measure the change in these scores over time. This risk score will allow for better targeting of interventions, and we can also use it to see where the highest risks are and how we can help those communities, or conversely where the lowest risks are and what we can learn from them.

Right now, we have no capacity to do this at scale in New Brunswick. Or, rather, our only capacity is academic; we have researchers who are able to deliver some of these interventions, and who, like us, are trying to scale them up.

Ultimately, our project will help address this by increasing the number of Certified Exercise Physiologists (CEP) in the province tenfold.

Why is this important?

Drug treatments for dementia, to date, have not been as successful as had been hoped to cure/combat the disease. However, it appears possible to prevent the onset of symptoms of dementia by addressing the known risk factors that can lead to this disease. Interventions that promote physical and cognitive activity are beginning to show evidence for slowing the progression to dementia.

By making knowledge of strategies to enhance brain health accessible to older adults and their caretakers, we will hopefully be able to reduce their risk for dementia and other health conditions resulting in healthier and happier people and communities.

Many of the known risk factors for dementia are also associated with other health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Halting or slowing the progression to dementia by even a few years could have significant impacts on improving the quality of life for older adults at risk of dementia.

Reducing risk factors may also translate into less personal and overall health care costs associated with having dementia and other health conditions. So, part of what we’re hoping to achieve is bringing increased awareness of how expensive and resource-intensive the lack of preventative health programs and capacity is for our healthcare systems and our society.

Dr. Chris McGibbon | Faculty of Kinesiology | Institute for Biomedical Engineering | Dr. Pamela Jarrett 

Research at UNB | Graduate Studies at UNB | Postdoctoral fellowships

Related Pages: Healthy Seniors Pilot Project: Five UNB projects receive funding