7 ways older adults can stay healthy while traveling

Sep 9, 2019

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Boomers are in better health, tend to be more physically active and are living longer than any generation before them. Many are approaching retirement age or have already retired, so they’re likely to have more discretionary time than those who are building families and careers. Boomers also seem to be characterized by a generally adventuresome mindset — one that drives them to seek out the life-affirming experiences often associated with travel abroad.

A survey of senior travel conducted by Visa found that more than 25% of those over the age of 65 take international trips and that income, rather than age, is the primary discriminant between those who do and those who don’t.

However, the physiological and environmental stressors of travel can play havoc with the health of travelers young and old. Who hasn’t come back from a trip with a common cold, or a twisted ankle? If not, you surely know someone else who has. But as one might expect, with age, the odds of getting sick or having to address a chronic medical issue while traveling tend to increase.

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Travel-related illnesses change with age

Although there has been a paucity of research on the topic, the health problems older adults experience while traveling may differ markedly from those of younger travelers. In one of the first, large-scale studies of its kind, the GeoSentinel Surveillance Network (a worldwide communication and data collection network of the International Society of Travel Medicine) compared travel-associated diseases of more than 7,034 older patients (ages 60 years and over) to the diseases of 56,042 younger patients (ages 18 to 45). The mean age of the older patients was 66 years old; 22% were over the age of 70.

All the patients surveyed had sought medical advice at one of the GeoSentinel travel and tropical medicine clinics (located on six continents) and were diagnosed with a disease related to their travels.

Risks of travel-related illness in older adults

The study results reported in the Journal of Travel Medicine suggested that many travel-related illnesses in older adults might be a consequence of physiological changes associated with age as well as the increased likelihood of underlying medical conditions.

The researchers found that older adults were more likely to be diagnosed with:

  • Lower respiratory tract infections (e.g., pneumonia, bronchitis) and high-altitude pulmonary edema (accumulation of fluid in the lungs)
  • Phlebitis and pulmonary embolism (blood clots in the veins that can travel to the lungs)
  • Arthropod bites (e.g. from insects and spiders)
  • Severe malaria
  • Rickettsiosis (bacterial disease transmitted by lice, ticks, mites and rat fleas)
  • Gastritis
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Esophagitis and gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • Trauma and injuries
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Heart disease

Risks of travel-related illness of younger adults

Younger travelers at these clinics didn’t get off scot-free. In contrast, they were disproportionately diagnosed with:

  • Acute diarrhea
  • Upper respiratory infections (including sore throats, sinusitis and common colds)
  • Flu and flu-like illnesses
  • Malaria
  • Dengue
  • Genital infections
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Schisotosomiasis (a disease caused by parasitic worms)

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Health Tips for Older Travelers

Given the unique risks of older travelers, both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the study findings suggest some prudent steps and preventive measures older travelers can take to protect their health while traveling abroad.

Visit your physician before a big trip

The CDC recommends a pre-trip evaluation 4 to 6 weeks before a trip abroad (or later, if you can’t arrange it sooner). Your physician or a travel medicine specialist can assess your fitness for travel, review the medications to take on your trip (and renew prescriptions, if necessary), and make sure you’re up-to-date with any necessary vaccines: both routine “childhood” vaccines as well as vaccines recommended for particular destinations (think: hepatitis, typhoid polio or yellow fever). The study notes that tour operators should remind older travelers of the importance of pre-travel medical evaluations.

Take precautions to avoid blood clots 

Travelers can take certain steps to help prevent deep vein thrombosis (a clot forming in a vein). On long-haul bus or plane rides, avoid sitting in the same position for extended lengths of time; if possible, opt for an aisle seat. Wiggle your toes, stretch your legs and walk around every couple of hours. Stay well hydrated and wear compressions stockings. Depending on someone’s medical history, a physician may prescribe anticoagulants for lengthy flights.

Practice good hygiene

To help avoid lower respiratory tracts infections, including pneumonia and bronchitis, wash your hands often and sanitize the areas known to harbor pathogens around your seat on the plane (tray tables, for example, and inflight entertainment systems). Be sure your vaccinations for influenza and pneumonia are up-to-date. The study suggests that older travelers consider the use of face masks in very crowded conditions.

Guard again altitude sickness

When travel destinations are likely to entail extreme changes in altitude and climate, discuss your itinerary with your doctor. In the case of high-altitude travel, experts recommend slow and progressive acclimatization to altitude so the body has time to adjust. Some physicians prescribe the diuretic acetazolamide to prevent or reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness. Depending on health status, some older travelers with heart or lung problems may be advised to avoid high altitudes entirely.

Avoid insect and spider bites

Wear long sleeve shirts and long pants. Use EPA-registered insect repellents, and choose hotels or accommodations with window screens. Older travelers who plan to sleep outdoors should seriously considering using mosquito nets.

Purchase supplemental travel health insurance

Both the study report and the CDC advise older travelers to purchase travel health insurance because Medicare doesn’t usually cover the costs of healthcare when traveling abroad. The study noted that older travelers who presented at the clinics were more likely to have life-threatening illnesses compared to younger patients. Having adequate insurance enables travelers to secure timely medical care in the event of illness. When traveling to remote areas, consider purchasing evacuation insurance that covers transport for necessary medical care. Certain premium credit cards also include medical evacuation protection when that card is used to book the trip.

Be mindful

 Certainly, not all travel risks can be averted — either at home or away — and no one wants to live in a bubble. But it always pays to be cautious when navigating new environments. The CDC maintains a list of international destinations that may pose challenges to travelers’ health or that should be avoided because of disease outbreaks or natural disasters.

So, build some downtime into your travel itinerary. Don’t create unnecessary stress by cutting it too close to get to the airport on time or by booking connecting flights too soon after your arrival at an airport.

Many times, travelers tend to let their guard down when away from home, too. For example, remember to always wear seat belts and be cautious about traveling after dark in questionable areas. Follow the basic tenets of food and water safety. Travelers should also wear sensible footwear.

The study authors note that age can compromise sensory, motor and perceptual skills, which can increase the risk for falls and other traumatic injuries.

“Travel is amazing for our health and vitality,” says Concepta Merry, MBBCh BAO, a medical doctor trained in Dublin who worked on global health for more than a decade. ”With sensible preparation, we can all enjoy travel and yet be safe.”

Feature photo by Steve Smith / Getty Images. 

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