Hide and seek: finding the clues to vascular ageing in 100,000 kids

Thursday, 17 Sep 2020

Can you sum up the aim of this project in 10 words?

To determine normal and early vascular ageing in children and young people.

What aspect of this research excites you the most?

This project will hopefully help to identify children and young people who are at increased cardiovascular risk, before overt cardiovascular disease is present. As such, we will be able to intervene and alter the health trajectory of these individuals and ultimately minimise the burden of cardiovascular disease later in life. For me, this is the most exciting aspect of this research. As this work involves a large number of international researchers, I am also excited about the collaborative nature of the project.

What have you previously discovered in this area?

I have recently shown that socio-demographic factors such as deprivation and some occupations, such as those involving a large amount of heavy lifting can contribute to accelerated vascular ageing, independently of traditional cardiovascular risk factors. I have also recently discussed the need for cardiovascular disease prevention to commence in childhood.

What’s the current best indicator of vascular age?

Among vascular ageing biomarkers, one of the most robust and promising markers is arterial stiffness. Carotid to femoral pulse wave velocity (PWV) is currently the gold standard non-invasive method for determining large artery stiffness in a clinical setting. Using applanation tonometry, this method determines how fast the pressure wave travels between the carotid and femoral pulse sites. The faster the pressure wave travels, the greater the stiffness of the artery. Many studies have shown that the stiffness of the large arteries is related to elevated cardiovascular disease risk, independently of traditional cardiovascular risk factors.

A little known tip for preventing accelerated vascular ageing?

Regular physical activity is beneficial for maintaining compliant arteries and preventing accelerate vascular ageing. Aerobic exercise (running, cycling, swimming) is particularly beneficial. It is important to note that the activity should be regular (for Australian adults at least 30 mins per day, five days a week) and should continue across the life course. Minimising salt intake in the diet is also a good way to prevent accelerated vascular ageing.

How long before your work might impact on patient care?

This project is part of a international collaborative network, VascAgeNet, involving approximately 200 scientists, clinicians and industry partners from Australia, the USA and Europe who are working together to refine, harmonise and promote the use of vascular ageing measures in clinical practice. The ultimate aim of our work is to reduce the burden of cardiovascular disease worldwide. It is hoped that by the end the four-year project and through more routine measures of vascular ageing, that our work will help to inform and enhance patient care.

What’s your Holy Grail – the one thing you’d like to achieve in your research career?

Given that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally and the underlying contributing pathophysiology starts in childhood, I would like to have a significant and positive impact on the health of Australian children. Currently, nearly 25% of Australian children are overweight or obese and approximately 75% of children aged 5-12 years and 92% of adolescents do not meet physical activity recommendations. Therefore, we can expect to see an increase in the prevalence of chronic diseases (such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes) in future which will have a significant health and economic burden, if childhood health is not improved. One way that I hope to contribute to this impact is through science communication and advocacy to ensure that people know about my scientific work and the implications so they can help to intervene and make a difference.

What is your biggest research hurdle?

Dealing with the multiple rejections that are inherent in research has been my biggest research hurdle. Given that it is not possible to do our work without research grants, we must apply for many grants each year, the majority of which are unsuccessful. I am gradually learning to accept that this is just the nature of the work, we can take something positive from each application and try again! However, some of my recent research has shown that lack of strategic funding and long-term job security is resulting in many cardiovascular researchers in Australia considering leaving the sector.

Who has inspired you in work or life?
I am very fortunate to have many people I look up to, who have inspired me in work and life. My primary PhD supervisor Prof Jim Sharman (Menzies Institute for Medical Research, Tasmania) has been an excellent mentor and role model for many years. Associate Professor Francine Marques (Monash University, Melbourne) who is still only in the early stage of her career, has been a wonderful mentor and support. I have significantly benefited from having someone to look up to who is a bit closer to my career stage, who knows the pitfalls and can help me to avoid them. In recent years and as a Kiwi myself, I have been particularly inspired by Jacinda Ardern. Her authentic, humane leadership style has directed me towards the type of leader that I hope to be one day.

There’s an app for that. What’s new on your phone?

A recent app I downloaded was Smiling Mind. With a background in exercise science, I am quite good at engaging in regular exercise, and although regular exercise is beneficial for mental health too, sometimes my mental health can be a little neglected! I have found this app to be very useful to check in with myself regularly, which has been exceptionally important during the current pandemic when everything has felt more uncertain.

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