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An interdisciplinary effort to lower the risk of dementia

Submitted on Thursday, May 11, 2023

This Dementia Awareness Week (May 15 –21), the Cyber-Seniors organization will be making use of a new video series, which identifies and explains risk factors for dementia, covering topics ranging from smoking to depression. The 16 videos, in both English and French, were put together by an interdisciplinary team from U of T and l’Université de Moncton, including professors and students in medicine, public health, social work, industrial engineering, and Information.

The videos are designed not just for older people but also for their caregivers and middle-aged adults wanting to know how they can reduce their own dementia risk. The project was funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada and coordinated by Cyber-Seniors, a non-profit organization whose mission is to bridge the digital divide and connect generations using technology.

The year-long process of making the videos began with social work Professor Esme Fuller-Thomson and her students gathering the research on modifiable risk factors for dementia. “There is so much new and actionable knowledge in this area that has emerged in the past decade,” said Fuller-Thomson, who is Director of the Institute for Life Course and Aging at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. “We put together the evidence.”

From there, the team at the Faculty of Information took over. Under the supervision of Associate Professor, Teaching Stream, Olivier St-Cyr, students from information, engineering and OISE drafted scripts, developed animated video characters, and handled all aspects of video production. Voice actors spent four days recording the videos, in a studio run by U of T’s Learning Space Management team, who donated their time to the project.

“We wanted to generate the storytelling and user experience that would allow people to enjoy the videos,” said St-Cyr. “We didn’t want to overwhelm our audience with scientific research they couldn’t understand. The students turned it into something people can understand and digest.

“I didn’t know drinking too much or feeling depressed could contribute to dementia. There’s a lot of stuff I learned myself,” he said.

Cyber-Seniors, which provides free technology support and training for senior citizens, is now using the videos in online workshops held in both English and French. The group prepared activities and discussion guides to accompany the videos while pre- and post-workshop questionnaires were developed by the team at l’Université de Moncton, headed by Dr. Jalila Jbilou, who holds a PhD in public health as well as an MD degree.

Jbilou’s team is also responsible for ongoing data analysis to see if the videos spur changes in workshop participants. Did workshop participants quit smoking, for example, and, if so, how did they manage to do this? How much has participants’ awareness of dementia increased? And have caregivers changed either their care or their lifestyles in response to the workshops?

Along with the online workshops, Professor Mark Chignell of Industrial Engineering has been visiting community centres and libraries to conduct in-person workshops using the videos. Chignell’s University of Toronto startup, Centivizer Inc., creates exergaming and cognitive assessment products to support healthy aging. The workshops provided an opportunity to test them out and gather data on the impact exercising might have on dementia.

Veronica Jiang, who managed the project for Cyber-Seniors, says that beyond “the great educational materials developed,” her organization reaped other benefits. Having professors, students and research assistants from so many different fields participating in this project has helped widen the Cyber-Seniors network and spread the word about what they do, she said.

The benefits were mutual, according to Faculty of Information student Trevor Cross, who played a key role in making the videos. His work with Professors St-Cyr and Chignell sparked the idea for his Master’s thesis on the information architecture of websites for older adults. And Cyber-Seniors helped Cross recruit participants for his thesis research. “This was a great opportunity to work with people in other faculties and with Cyber-Seniors,” said Cross, who expects to graduate in November.

The videos are available on YouTube in English and French. Cyber-Seniors’ social media team will be posting the campaign on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter during Dementia Awareness/Action Week