Faculty Profile: Dr. Andrew Wister, Gerontology

May 30, 2016

Since coming to SFU over twenty years ago, Gerontology’s Dr. Andrew Wister has pioneered the Department’s graduate programs in Gerontology and built his research profile on such topics as aging and environmental adaptation, patterns of family and social support, health promotion and population health, as well as healthcare, aging and the changing dynamics of the healthcare system. Awarded a University Professorship for 2015-2020, Wister is also currently chair of the National Seniors Council of Canada and he is leading the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA)—the first nation-wide, long-term study of its kind. 

Wister’s interest in the aging population began at Western University in London, Ontario. In addition to completing his PhD in Social Demography at Western, Wister also completed two post docs—one at University of Waterloo and one at University of Manitoba—before joining SFU’s Department of Gerontology in 1991. 

Wister with former Minister of State (Seniors), Alice Wong at the National Senior's Council Roundtable on Social Isolation in 2014.

On the topic of healthcare, Wister is interested in being involved in healthcare reform over the longer term. “We [in Canada] have a great healthcare system but it is a fragmented system with room for improvement.” He says implementing integrative care models (which would have long-term cost savings) would require changes to our current systems of funding and the Ministries involved. “To have it more integrated, what we need is a separate funding envelope to make really big changes after which we would see the cost savings, but you need that initial investment. Integrated models are when you have health teams doing assessments and you properly connect people with the services they require so people who do not need them don’t get them. […] The savings over time is that people would use emergency rooms less, they’ll end up in hospitals in fewer numbers (instead of hospitals, they’ll be either in long term care facilities which is about 1/3 the price of the hospital or they’ll be staying in the community).  Keeping people in the community has got to be one priority and this would facilitate it.”

While Wister is a believer in living a healthy lifestyle and doing one’s best to age well in modern society, he also notes that that isn’t always easy while living in a strongly ageist society: “Today, there’s more and more emphasis on how people look and there’s a prolongevity movement with anywhere from 45-80 billion dollars a year spent on anti-aging treatments. In that prolongevity view, aging is seen as more of a disease that requires treatments—Botox, facelifts, hair colouring, herbal treatments, hormone replacements, whatever it takes not to show your age—rather than [part of] a normal life course. The unintended consequence of this obsession with youth is that it magnifies and fosters ageist attitudes and we start to lose sight of what constitutes normal aging.” To change that, he says, “we need a fundamental shift in the way people see aging. When we do that it will affect aging, ageism, people’s lifestyles and activity.” Committed to helping shift this paradigm, Wister says it can be done through knowledge-based resources. “We need evidence and multiple studies, but we also need to take that evidence and translate it into healthy public policy and knowledge that’s transferable to a general public.”

To collect some of that evidence, the CLSA, funded primarily by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI), includes 51,000 participants between the ages of 45-85 and following up with them over the course of 20 years. Wister explains that “30,000 of these participants go through comprehensive data collection procedures and 20,000 are the tracking cohort with a telephone survey much like the Canadian Community Health Survey.” Of the 11 CLSA sites across Canada, Wister is the Principal Investigator at the Surrey Data Collection Site and at the Vancouver Computer Assisted Telephone Interview (CATI) Site.

He says he’s grateful to be working with people like Dr. Heather Stewart, a research associate at SFU’s Gerontology Research Centre who is also the Regional Manager for the CLSA’s data collection site at SFU Surrey and UBC. And at Harbour Centre, he adds, “our telephone interview site is quite high-tech. The data is computerized and funneled to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario which is the central National Coordinating Centre of the CLSA.” Wister explains that the 30,000 participants across Canada will have comprehensive face-to-face interviews and extensive physical examinations when they visit their local data collection site

By tracking the health of people aged 45-85 over a period of time, Wister estimates that the CLSA has the potential to help solve over a million data points. “The interesting thing is that we’re undergoing population aging as we complete this study. We need longitudinal panel data over time to disentangle the complex associations of things. For example, what causes social isolation in the aging population? Is it reciprocal? Do some health problems come first and then social isolation or—in the reverse—does social isolation affect one’s health because they are staying at home and not getting physical activity?  What is the genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s? Can it be prevented? Once we identify new markers, maybe we can encourage people to engage in different types of behaviour and treatment.”

When considering the kinds of opportunities the CLSA will provide for further research, Wister says “I believe that the greatest discoveries will occur at the crossroads of disciplines. While you might have these different kinds of data in different places genetic, physiological, social, health care utilization data, etc., here we have it all in one dataset. It can be connected together and we can begin to understand the complex causal pathways and trajectories through which people can obtain good health or not and question how we change that trajectory. I think people genuinely want to know that: how do I age well? What is the secret to living and aging well? We know some things about that but there are a lot of rocks left unturned.” 

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