Could Flying This Plane Slow Down Cognitive Aging?

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by Victoria Farrand

Research published in Psychological Science proposes that some cognitive abilities can begin to decline at the tender age of just thirty years old, which is right about now for the Millennial population.

But before you panic and buy a subscription to Lumosity, there’s some interesting research that suggests that travel and continual learning could slow down the signs of cognitive aging if done regularly.

If trying your hand at flying a plane isn’t quite your thing…how about learning to speak Spanish, or training to be a ski instructor, or yoga teacher? Would you try these on your vacation?

For a new breed of traveller, the answer is yes. For these people, cultivating new skills on a vacation is just as commonplace as seeking out sun soaked palms or photographing historical landmarks, and they might just be onto something.

While working holidays, voluntourism, and learning vacations aren’t cutting-edge concepts, there is growing demand for access to “learning-based travel experiences,” and if the evidence is to be believed, combining travel and learning could be one of the best things you can do for your brain.

Let’s take a look.

To get started, let’s look at what learning-based travel experiences actually are and who they’re aimed at. Popular with travellers who want to create meaning through active participation, learning-based travel experiences differ vastly from the traditional “stand back and gaze” approach of mass tourism.

Popular with Millennials, they are part of a rapidly growing area known as Experiential Tourism where travellers find value in educational experiences and learning new skills.

Given that Millennials are instigators of travel trends and thrive on influencing others, it could be their values that are the driving force behind the growing popularity of learning-based travel experiences in British Columbia.

Stats published in the Canada Millennial Domestic Travel Summary Report show that:

  • Millennials travel more frequently and further than other age groups, accounting for 20% of total global travel
  • Millennials are pioneer travellers who discover and promote destinations not yet visited by traditional tourists
  • The millennial travel segment highly values travel as a life experience and an essential component of their personal growth and learning process

To give you an example, here’s one such Canadian business that offers travellers learning experiences and immersion in local knowledge. Sea To Sky Air is an adventure flight tour operator based out of Squamish, British Columbia.

They offer everything from educational natural history tours, such as their Prehistoric Glacier Express that transports travellers back in time 250 million years to fly shoulder-to-shoulder with dormant volcanoes and rumbling glaciers; to hands-on flying experiences where guests learn the fundamentals of aviation, take the controls as the co-pilot, and fly the plane on the own coast mountain adventure. Interestingly, Millennials are also their fastest-growing demographic.

Your Brain On Travel

But, back to the original question. Let’s start by determining if there is any correlation between travel and cognitive function. In 2010, research by Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School suggested that “living in and adapting to foreign cultures facilitates creativity” by “increasing both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought.”

Galinsky’s findings are complemented by clinical neuropsychologist, Dr. Paul D. Nussbaum from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “Travel is good medicine,” says Nussbaum, because it challenges the brain with new and different experiences and environments, it is an important behavior that promotes brain health and builds brain resilience across our lifespan.”

So, it appears that challenging the brain to adapt and learn regularly (on a daily basis, as happens when you’re immersed in travel) does have the ability to increase “mental flexibility,” as Galinsky described it.

Your Brain On Learning

Next, let’s look at whether increasing the frequency of educational experiences has the potential to slow down cognitive degeneration.

According to Harvard Medical School’s article 6 Simple Steps To Keep Your Mind Sharp At Any Age, “experts believe that advanced education may help keep memory strong by getting a person into the habit of being mentally active.” In support of this idea, number one on their list of preventative steps is “Keep Learning.”

The article in Healthbeat explains that “challenging your brain with mental exercise is believed to activate processes that help maintain individual brain cells and stimulate communication among them, and keep memory strong.”

In light of all this, if adapting to foreign cultures is one of the best forms of brain training for cognitive flexibility and constantly learning new skills is key to keeping your brain young and retaining memory, it’s not too far of a leap to suggest that making time for learning-based travel experiences on weekends and during your vacations could be an effective part of a regular brain-boosting regimen. As if we needed any more excuses to travel.

The most exciting part is that if there is a connection between learning vacations and cognitive health, the millennial population might be leading the way.

Based on the statistics and findings in this article, I’ll leave you with another thought to ponder, could Millennial wanderlust inadvertently help slow down the cognitive impairment of a whole generation? But that’s a whole other article.

Happy travels!


Victoria Farrand is an ethical marketing consultant and growth hacker. Connect with her @vickyfarrand.

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