Studies suggest that leisure travel can boost cognitive and cardiovascular health:
Travel tops many people’s retirement goals, and it’s a given that staying healthy prolongs our ability to take active vacations. Yet research suggests that the reverse holds true as well: Travel can actually keep our brains and bodies healthier as we get older.
That’s a message that many of us are eager to hear at this time of year, when we may already be looking back wistfully at our end-of-year vacations. So it’s timely that the Global Coalition on Aging, a group of companies across various industries focused on issues related to aging, in collaboration with the U.S. Travel Association, has been circulating an analysis it conducted of the existing medical literature on travel and health.
Some members of these organizations, of course, would see their businesses benefit if more people traveled more often and stayed healthier longer as a result. But a few of the studies that they highlight do show a compelling connection between vacation and physical well-being. Travel has been found to lower the risk of heart attack and death from coronary disease in certain groups, while the new and complex situations encountered while traveling can also help keep the brain sharp.
It’s not too far-fetched to imagine doctors prescribing travel for their patients as these benefits become more widely appreciated, said Michael Hodin, executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging and managing partner at the High Lantern Group, a consulting firm. “It becomes less of a nice-to-have and more of a need-to-have relationship,” he added. Several decades ago, the public didn’t fully grasp the benefits of diet and exercise, Hodin said, and the same might hold true for travel today.
Indeed, we tend to think of travel’s benefits as short-lived. We unwind when we’re out of town, and if we’re lucky, those feelings of relaxation might linger for a day or two once we’ve resumed our regular lives. In fact, the health benefits continue well beyond that.
As part of the long-running Framingham Heart Study, which studies residents of Framingham, Mass., women aged 45 to 64 were asked how often they took vacations. In a 20-year follow-up study, researchers found that women who vacationed every six years (or less frequently) had a significantly higher risk of developing a heart attack or coronary death compared with women who vacationed at least twice a year, even after adjusting for traditional risk factors such as blood pressure.
A separate, nine-year study found that annual vacations reduced the risk of death from any cause, and specifically death from heart disease, in a group of men at high risk for coronary heart disease
Travel is also good medicine when it comes to brain health, said Paul D. Nussbaum, a Pittsburgh-based psychologist who participated in the Global Coalition on Aging report. While studies isolating the impact of travel are few, plenty of research has suggested that there are brain-boosting benefits to social and leisure experiences. One study found that regular participation in activities such as traveling, odd jobs or gardening was associated with a lower risk of subsequent dementia.
The value of novelty
Challenging new experiences of any kind can boost cognitive health, by helping the brain develop parts of nerve cells called dendrites, which are like branches of a tree, Nussbaum said. For example, well-known studies out of University College London have shown that parts of the brains of London taxi drivers actually expanded to help them navigate their complex routes around the city. While these studies focused on people in a work environment, Nussbaum and others think that the novelty of leisure travel—especially the kind that involves navigating an unfamiliar environment on your own—can also boost the brain.
Elderhostel, a Boston-based nonprofit organization, offers various levels of structure in the travel programs it offers, rebranded in recent years under the name Road Scholar. The most popular among boomers is the “flex” option that splits days in half, between planned group activities and independent exploration, said JoAnn Bell, vice president of Road Scholar Programs. Navigating unfamiliar terrain can be stressful, Bell said, so often tour guides will help participants learn their way around a new place before they go out on their own.
For Joe Nevin, a former Apple executive and ski instructor in Aspen, Colo., half the fun of visiting a new place is figuring out the metro system. A “mileage runner,” Nevin, 67, racks up more than 100,000 frequent-flier miles a year by visiting far-flung locales such as Tokyo and Singapore. (He usually spends no more than a couple of days in each destination, which he said helps to minimize jet lag.)
What if your idea of travel is visiting the same beach resort every year, where you lie on the same patch of sand? To be sure, this type of vacation confers certain health benefits, including lowering the stress hormones that have been shown to accelerate aging. But if your goal is to boost brain health, it helps to shake up your routine.
And what if you lack wanderlust completely? With so much societal focus on bucket-list travel for retirees, some folks feel guilty that they’d rather stay home. One answer, Nussbaum said, is to take baby steps outside your comfort zone. For example, visit the next county over, or try a new restaurant.
Traveling for exercise
When he’s not taking the longest route possible around the world, Nevin teaches boomers how to ski moguls and powder through Bumps for Boomers, the ski program he founded in Aspen. He teaches boomers with ski experience how to break out of their “intermediate rut,” working within the limits of the middle-aged physique with a focus on maintaining balance and controlling speed. “We’ve got all these boomers trying to keep up with their grandkids,” Nevin said. Studies strongly suggest that regular exercise may help reduce cognitive impairment and the risk of dementia.
One nice convergence that often happens with active family travel is that the oldest and youngest participants have the same stamina levels, said Dan Austin, president of Austin Adventures, a Billings, Montana-based travel company. On a cycling day, guides might take the younger kids and the grandparents on a 15-mile bike trip, while the older kids and the parents push on for an additional 20 miles, Austin said.
Group travel builds social ties, which studies have suggested help protect against dementia. Joyce Minosh, a retired secretary from outside Boston, enjoys taking hiking trips with friends through Road Scholar and other programs. Her husband prefers to stay at home and play bridge, which is just fine by Minosh. “It’s great to go traveling with friends,” she said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
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As originally published on Market Watch