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Vital Signs with Dr. Sanjay Gupta

The Possible Negative and Positive Effects of Travel on Health Examined. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired July 30, 2016 - 14:30   ET


[14:30:13] DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: There's nothing quite like hopping on a plane and jetting off to a new destination. This is "Vital Signs." I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Whether it's a family holiday or relaxing on the beach, research suggests that vacations can improve a person's happiness. But that boost in mood may not last long after the trip is over. Research suggests that soon after your vacation your happiness levels revert back to where they were before. In fact it's the time leading up to traveling in first few days of your holiday that leave the longest lasting mark. Once you have boarded the plane and you're anticipating the exciting days ahead, it's the flight crew's job to make sure your time in the air is not only enjoyable but safe as well.

Airline check-in, security checkpoints, baggage claims, for many people air travel can be a nightmare. Still it's one of the most widely used modes of transportation for long distance travel. According to the International Air Transport Association, approximately 100,000 commercial flights take off and land every day. Between 2013 and 2014, approximately 3.3 billion passengers flew on commercial airlines.

When you're comfortably in your seat and waiting for refreshments, the last thing you want to think about is a possible in- flight medical emergency. At 30,000 feet, airline staff could quite possibly have a passenger's life in their hands. I visited the Delta Airline training center in Atlanta to see how flight crews manage medical emergencies.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's go ahead and board the one last door.

GUPTA: Out of all of the training a flight attendant might go through, how big a component is the medical and safety part of it.

JUSTIN RIPLEY, FLIGHT ATTENDANT INSTRUCTOR, DELTA AIRLINES: The medical and safety part of it is a heavy component of it. And that's something the FAA puts heavy emphasis on because it's pretty much a guarantee it's going to happen. If it can happen on the ground it can happen in the air as well. So we need to respond to that appropriately.

GUPTA: Although rare, inflight medical issues do occur. A recent study calculated that one in every 604 flights reported medical emergencies, or about 44,000 medical emergencies every year. The most common issues are fainting or feeling dizzy or nausea or vomiting. Delta says they do their best to train flight attendants to handle most medical problems that can happen in the sky.

This is the other part of the team. Instead of being in the air, they are on the ground. Based at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, STAT-MD is a medical communication center that offers support services for several North American airlines.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Southwest 1126 I did copy all of that.

DR. T.J. DOYLE, MEDICAL DIRECTOR, STAT-MD: We basically provide in-flight consultations for inflight emergencies, and we also provide fitness to fly screening for the airlines for people on the ground in case there's a question on their ability to go up in the air.

GUPTA: Let's say someone is having -- they feel lightheaded and they're having chest pain, for example, which probably is a more common scenario. Talk me through it. What would the conversation be like?

DOYLE: What would usually happen is that on the flight either the passenger themselves will bring attention to themselves and call for help or someone else on the flight might notice or the flight attendant might notice. So then they usually initiate their airline specific procedures. And then, you know, hopefully they fill out the information form under the cockpit door. And then the captain will contact us and the captain will relay the information from the form. And then while they are doing that, oftentimes they'll ask for is there a medical volunteer on board that can assist as well?

GUPTA: STAT-MD considers inflight birth and cardiac arrest to be the most severe medical emergencies. They say situations like these could lead to flight diversion, but ultimately that decision is made on a case by case basis.

So the captain is in charge, which makes perfect sense. But the captain says, what do I do, do I divert the plane or not divert the plane? What are the criteria you use to help the captain?

DOYLE: It varies on the circumstance, what the situation is, and then also based on distance from their destination. If the flight is about -- is within 30 minutes from the destination, even if it's a pretty severe critical event, there's really no time benefit from diverting somewhere else.

GUPTA: The extreme pressure change in aircraft cabins tends to be the biggest issue for many passengers. According to Delta flight instructors, there's a fairly simple solution to staying healthy in the sky.

You've been doing this for a while. Has it changed how you fly at all? Do you do anything different now yourself to keep yourself healthy or make it less likely you're going to have a problem?

[14:05:08] RIPLEY: Definitely stay hydrated. You feel that when you're flying and you don't realize, especially in our environment. We work constantly on our feet and it's easy to forget simple things like that. GUPTA: Next on "Vital Signs," we meet two long-time friends to

show the pit falls of frequent business travel and why taking time away from work is good for our bodies and social life.


GUPTA: For many people traveling for pleasure, taking time off and escaping the daily grind, is one of life's joys. In every country of the European Union, it's required by law people in the EU have at least four work weeks of paid holiday time. But the United States is the only developed country without legally mandated paid vacation. The result is that one in four Americans don't have a single paid day off.

As people in the workforce age not having time off can be detrimental. According to Mayo Clinic, not taking time away from every day stressors can increase the amount of stress hormone known as cortisol in the body. That could speed up the aging process. In the United States Americans are focusing more on leisure travel as they get closer to retirement. A Boston based non-profit is hoping their globe-trotting dreams become a reality.

Meet Francy Hays, the 65-years-old deputy director for a D.C. based non-profit is ultimately a self-pro claimed workaholic.

FRANCY HAYS: I'm really active in my professional life, and that involves being fully engaged at work. And with colleagues here in D.C. and colleagues all around the world.

GUPTA: With Francy's line of work she has to travel often, usually to underdeveloped countries, and it's taken a bit of a toll over the years.

HAYS: My identity was really tied up with my profession. I began traveling quite a bit. And that changed family dynamics because I would be gone for two to three weeks at a time. And I really valued that. And it had consequences, but at that point in my life that was really, really important to me.

GUPTA: Francy is one of millions whose jobs require frequent travel.

PROF. SCOTT COHEN, DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH, UNIVERSITY OF SURREY SCHOOL OF HOSPITALITY AND TOURISM: What we do is we show how for the most part societies tend to glamourize travel, particularly frequent travel, business travel.

GUPTA: Professor Scott Cohen is the coauthor of a study in the U.K. that highlights the downfalls of recurring business travel.

COHEN: What we've done is we've shown the different ways in which that's glamourized, and then we've brought to the fore all of the different darker sides of frequent travel that are physiological, emotional, that psychological that people rarely talk about. There's a disruption to the circadian rhythm that you get through frequent jetlag, and that has chronic effects when it builds over time. So it's not just taking five to seven days, there's also gene disruption that influences aging. There's chronic memory impairment. There's a high risk of heart attack and stroke as well.

GUPTA: In addition are the emotional and psychological problems, mainly stress. Stressors are like long hauls to other countries, inconvenient delays and departure times and disrupted routines. Dana Wyner of Emory University says travel related stress can disrupt other areas of life.

DANA WYNER, DOCTOR OF PSYCHOLOGY: It can really affect us significantly. Looking at the symptoms of stress and the ways that it can interfere, you're looking at self-care. So how does it affect their ability to take care of their physical needs, nutrition, sleep?

GUPTA: I have this conversation with my family members all the time. And I make the argument, tell me if I'm right or wrong, that there is good stress as well. I think I thrive on a little bit of stress.

WYNER: There is this fantasy, OK, that the harder I work and the more that I just kind of almost like mentally beat myself up, the higher my performance is going to go. In actuality, we have that point at which we fall off. It's just the fantasy.

GUPTA: Like many professionals, Francy spent much of the career living that fantasy. But now that she's nearing retirement, she says something changed.

HAYS: Something switched inside which was like I don't want to do this anymore. I loved doing it and I was wholly committed to it. But the has changed.

GUPTA: And 67-year-old Louisa Mattson is a psychologist in Washington, D.C. She's also a close friend of Francy's. The two women have known each other for nearly 60 years.

LOUISA MATTSON: I definitely consider myself to be active. I play tennis four times a week. I do walking. I like to bike in the summer. Last year I went on my second horseback packing trip to Montana, which was quite rigorous.

GUPTA: Over the last decade, Louisa has added global travel to her active lifestyle through a nonprofit organization called Road Scholar. Mainly geared toward older adults, the program provides educational travel tours to different locations around the world. So far Louisa has been on six road scholar adventures including hiking in Death Valley and spending time in Costa Rica.

MATTSON: I've heard people say as you're aging, travel in your 60s because you just don't know how physically able you're going to be for how long. I think as we age we gain a lot of perspective and wisdom, and traveling just adds to the wealth of experiences that can inform our sense of selves and our sense of humanity and life.

GUPTA: Now, Louisa's adventure is taking her to the Italian countryside of Umbria. For the first time she's bringing along her friend Francy.

[14:45:09] HAYS: Louisa was the energy behind it, and she was one who talked me into doing it. And the whole thing is the opportunity to detach from work. So personally, I hope to learn and to find ways of engaging outside my usual comfort zone in terms of meeting new people and really striking up conversations and not feeling restrained about doing that, also handling what may be the few physical challenges, knowing I'll have to handle them and being OK with that.

GUPTA: When we come back, as Francy and Louisa head to Italy, we'll explore how leisure travel can affect heart health, possibly adding years to your life.


GUPTA: Vacations and holidays are an excellent way to release stress. There's evidence that traveling for pleasure can also add years to your life. Research shows that men who didn't take annual vacations had a 30 percent higher chance of dying from heart disease, and women who didn't take vacations are more than twice as likely to suffer from depression as compared to other women.

That's likely because activities associated with travel, like walking the beach and hiking national parks or museum hopping, are good for our physical and cognitive functions.

Best friends Louisa Mattson and Francy HAYS explored the Italian countryside to see just how good an international getaway can make you feel.

[14:50:18] GUPTA: Longtime friends Louisa Mattson and Francy HAYS are on an adventure from the United States to the Italian countryside through Road Scholar, a nonprofit organization that gives travelers educational tours to cities worldwide. This is Francy's first trip and Louisa's seventh.

MATTSON: Once you get to your location you don't really have to think about anything, which is nice. You meet fascinating people who are on the trip. You get an educational experience. You feel cared for. It feeds the mind and it feeds the body multiple ways.

HAYS: I think the walking is what I really came for. And the vistas and the views are just so much better than anything I could imagine.

GUPTA: The president and CEO James Moses says most of their tours are geared towards adults in their 50s and older.

JAMES MOSES, PRESIDENT AND CEO, ROAD SCHOLAR: People have begun to understand that learning is a critical part of aging, and that staying engaged intellectually and socially as well as physically is critical to a healthy older age. It's not about the quantity of years. It's about the quality of years. And that's really what Road scholar has championed all this time. Lifelong learning we think is a critical element to a healthy older age. GUPTA: Louisa and Francy are both in their mid-60s, and they're

focusing on health as they get closer to retirement. Louisa is an avid hiker and tries to stay as active as possible. Francy is shifting her priorities from work and leading a much more active lifestyle than she has in the past.

HAYS: I think for 65 years I took my good health for granted. And I've learned in the past year I can't do that. And I need to pay attention to my health, and a big part of health is physical health, strength, well-being. All of that is really important.

GUPTA: The two women have set aside part of their team in Umbria for what's called adventure travel.

MATTSON: I love being active when I travel, and you just feel so good. You feel virtuous at the end of the morning after your hike, and then you can enjoy the food, and you feel -- by the end of the trip you feel healthier than when you began.

HAYS: I think for me what's been especially wonderful is the hiking every morning because the hiking really puts -- I have to be in the moment. I have to pay attention to where the path is going, what rock is going to be in the way for me to potentially trip over. And for me the physical side always seemed like it was going to be challenge. And I was a little bit concerned. All of my concentration had to be used during the hiking and there's nothing more in the moment.

GUPTA: Remaining physical, even when on vacation, is a large part of staying healthy and fit, especially as we age. But when you're on a big getaway, there are also potential cognitive benefits.

WYNER: We're talking leisure, it brings us into a novel situation. When do we do our best learning, right? It's when we're open, mindful. We're learning that we don't all operate the same way. We don't all operate according to like the same set of rules. And when you come back home, you look at your own life differently. You develop an appreciation for other people.

GUPTA: What impact do you think that sort of leisure time has on aging?

WYNER: Our brains never stop growing. We're always developing and we can always learn. I think that was something that wasn't always believed but now, right, we know so much more about neuroplasty, the ways we can development new pathways, the ways that we can learn.

GUPTA: We asked Louisa how she thinks her travels have influenced her cognitive function over the years?

MATTSON: The benefits of travel are that it brings you right into the present moment, because everything is new. You literally don't know what is around the corner. Especially in Umbria, there's so many nooks and crannies in so many corners. So you're constantly in a state of unknowing, a state of surprise, and that really brings you into the moment. You feel more fully alive. It encourages you to have a mindset of openness and curiosity and wonder.

[14:55:00] One thing I'm promising myself this trip is can I bring back that mindset to my daily life so I'm not living in a kind of trance of making assumptions about the way life is. And this trip has definitely constantly breaking my assumptions, challenging them, and it's thrilling really.

GUPTA: For Francy, her first big travel adventure marks a new era in her life, one that involves an appreciation for travel and its benefits to her health.

HAYS: I've worked really hard and I've loved my work. But all of a sudden there was something that turned inside me and said, OK, that chapter is not over, but the importance of it in terms of the priority has shifted. And this trip really meant more to me than just a trip, because it was a beginning or is a beginning.

GUPTA: Life can often get in the way of a much needed holiday, but traveling and taking some time off means a healthier body and mind. When you do travel, walk around during long flights to reduce the risk of blood clots, stay hydrated, and try your best to eat healthy meals.

For "Vital Signs," I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.