Secret no.42 Travel

100-year-old Margaret Turnbull planned to travel the world with her husband, John, when he retired. Sadly, John died in 1979 before they got the chance but he made Margaret promise to keep to their plans – and she did, visiting Hawaii, Alaska, Africa and Spain.

Margaret thinks that travelling helped her reach 100: she puts her long life down to “good exercise, good healthy meals, good friends – and travel if you can.”*

We know that travel is supposed to broaden the mind but can it increase lifespan as well?

Plausibility rating: 7 out of 10. Just possibly. One study ( a follow-up to the large-scale Framingham heart study which started in the 1960s) found that women who traveled at least twice a year had a lower risk of a heart attack or dying from heart disease than those who traveled less frequently.

For men, a nine-year study found those who did not take an annual vacation had a 20 percent higher risk of death and about a 30 percent greater risk of death from heart disease. The authors conclude: “Vacationing may be good for your health“.

So what might be going on here? Why might it be good for us to travel? This paper for the Global Commission on Aging (admittedly commissioned by the American Travel Association) reviews the evidence and suggests that travel increases physical and mental activity, gets our brains working (how do you say ‘a soy latte and a breakfast muffin please’ in Spanish) and gets us socially engaged, all of which have positive health benefits.

Now if you’re reading this while eating cold airport food in a crowded departure lounge at Luton waiting for a Ryanair flight to Magaluf that’s been delayed for half a day, this may all seem a little idealistic. And it is surely true that, as this research concludes, “poorly planned and stressful vacations eliminate the positive benefit of time away“.

But a good holiday, well planned can be a genuine tonic – and much better for us than spending our money on a new car or a watch. Thomas Gilovich, the Cornell professor who has made a career of studying the subject, shows that spending on experiences such as holidays makes us much happier than spending on objects.

“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” he writes. You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”

The sad part for Margaret is that she didn’t get to share those experiences with John. But at least she got to have them.

*As well as the travel, Margaret enjoyed swimming, hiking and gardening. At the age of 80 she was still teaching line dancing and taking ice-cold swims in Saranac Lake.

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STORY SO FAR: top-rated ways to live to 100

Twenty entries in to our ‘101 ways to live to 100′ and already one or two trends are emerging. Alcohol and religion both turn up in quite a few of our centenarians’ secrets to longevity, as does chocolate. So far, no one has mentioned genetics (though a few have mentioned ‘family’). And our surprise leader is mountaineering.

Our league table below is surely the only time these words have ever appeared in a list together:

9/10: Mountaineering
8/10: A loving family; Be happy and enjoy life;
7/10: A good doctor; praising God
6/10: One meal a day; sleep; hard work
5/10: ChocolateMonogamy; Guinness; Yoga; a lot of booze
4/10: Two raw eggs;
3/10: Work less overtime;
2/10: Bacon
1/10: Water from a wishing well
0/10: Pearls
No score: Good food; stem cells

Back soon with: Does a sense of humour help you live longer?

Secret no.19 Mountain walking

Centenarian Nellie Sillitoe celebrated her 70th birthday by climbing Mount Snowdon in Wales. Nellie and her husband Reginald were keen mountaineers and climbed peaks in Austria, Italy and Switzerland – a pastime that son Richard, now 71 himself, gives credit for Nellie’s longevity.

18163636_2fc37dc769“My parents were great mountain walkers,” he told the local Stoke Sentinel. We were brought up in that environment, being taught to love the outdoors. I think that all those years of mountaineering were very beneficial. (It may also have had some impact on Richard’s choice of career – he is a professor of geology).

Richard’s account suggests other factors may also have played some part in his mother’s long life: “She has always maintained her mobility and made sure to get lots of fresh air and ate a fairly scrupulous diet. Her most exceptional trait, echoed by a number of people, is that she’s never been known to say a bad word about anyone. She always sees the best in people.” And perhaps in situations. Asked what she thought of her 100th birthday, Nellie said: “It’s just like any other day. You have to make the best of this world.”

But sticking with mountaineering for a moment, is it credible that it could have played a significant role in Nellie’s longevity?

Plausibilty rating: 9 out 10. At first glance, it seems unlikely that mountaineering would improve longevity. It is not without its risks, which the US National Centre for Health Statistics helpfully catalogues each year: So we know that if you choose to climb above 6,000m in the Himalayas then your annual risk of death is around 11 in 100. Even routine mountain climbing puts you at the not insubstantial risk of death of 1 in 1,750. However – though the Stoke Sentinel is not clear on this point – it seems more likely that Nellie and her husband in fact took part in what the NCHS categorises as ‘mountain hiking’. Fortunately for this the chance of death, er, plummets to 1 in 15,700. That still makes it more than twice as risky as scuba diving but it’s certainly not base jumping (1 in 60) or grand prix racing (1 in 100).

So if the risks of mountaineering/mountain walking aren’t such an issue, what about the benefits? These, in turns out, are substantial. The British Mountaineering Council says that regular brisk walking will ‘improve performance of the heart, lungs and circulation, as well as lower blood pressure‘, while regular walking ‘has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, stroke and some cancers’. And don’t get them started on the mental health benefits: walking ‘heals our brains, helps us concentrate, makes us more creative and can help treat depression’. But does it add years to life? Plenty of studies suggest it does. One, in 2012, found that regular, moderate physical exercise such as brisk walking could increase life expectancy by several years. Normal weight people who exercised for at least 150 minutes a week lived over 7 years longer than people who were inactive or obese.

So there we have it. Mountain hiking really could be responsible for some of Nellie’s longevity. It alone may not have got her all the way to 100 but it could well have helped.

photo credit: Mt. Goryu via photopin (license)