We all want to live longer, happier, healthier lives, and there is a plethora of information telling us what to do, and what not to do, to achieve this nirvana.

But how do we wade through the overwhelming amount of often mind-boggling detail to develop a simple plan for our everyday lives with the long-term certainty of being able to travel, and enjoy life, well into our old age?

Photo: Hugh Stewart.Tourism Australia

Photo: Hugh Stewart.Tourism Australia

There is some compelling research which makes it seem obvious to adopt a few key habits to alleviate stress (which is a known precursor to many illnesses) and avoid or better manage degenerative and debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, Parkinson’s, stroke, type 2 diabetes, mental health issues, Huntington’s and cancer. For those of us who want to commit to a healthier lifestyle to avoid life-inhibiting and sometimes life-threatening illnesses, here are 10 tips for a longer life, which I have accumulated through my investigative reading on the topic!:

  1. Avoid smoking –  it’s perhaps not surprising that a recent study by QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute found that smoking led to 15,525 cases of cancer in Australia each year – a great reason to give it the flick – literally!
  2. Reduce alcohol intake – the same study found that over 3000 cases of cancer each year were linked to alcohol consumption, yet, if people stuck to the guidelines of no more than two alcoholic drinks a day, their chances of developing the disease were substantially reduced
  3. Exercise regularly – regular exercise is well known to release endorphins (happy hormones!) which help us mitigate stress.  But exercise also improves mobility, helps to keep our weight in check, increases blood flow to our essential organs, such as our brain and heart, and generally gives us a sense of well-being.  Through the work of researchers into ‘brain plasticity’, highlighted in the writings of Canadian psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and researcher Dr Norman Doidge MD, it is also now thought to be a key in  alleviating and in some cases delaying the symptoms of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, stroke and other degenerative and life-debilitating diseases
  4. Eat well – a mostly plant-based diet, rich in protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals is essential, as is reducing the amount of red meat we consume. A 2013 Cardiff University study of 2,235 men aged 45-39 over 35 years found that non-smokers who ate well, exercised regularly, drank little, kept their weight down and didn’t smoke, had a 60% drop in dementia and cognitive decline, as well as 70% fewer instances of diabetes, heart disease and stroke. The evidence is so compelling that Public Health England has decided to launch a public health program called Care for your Brain, encouraging people to exercise and eat healthily to reduce the risk of dementia
  5. Keep your mind active on a variety of endeavours – Professor Anthony Hannan, who heads up the Neural Plasticity Laboratory at the Florey Institute in Melbourne, has demonstrated through his research with mice with the genetic mutation for Huntington’s disease, that the brain is plastic and can re-form new connections, via enhanced cognitive stimulation, such as providing ladders, tunnels and mazes, to delay the onset or slow the progress of disease. The findings show that ‘environmental enhancement’ can lead to the birth of new neurons in the brain, and the repair of damaged ones, which could have a significant impact on the delay of diseases such as depression and dementia. In its simplest sense, the disconnection of neural pathways through damage or non-use, once thought to be permanent, is now known to be reversible.  So the phrase “use it or lose it” is basically true – continually challenging our brains to form new pathways helps to keep it, and our body functions, healthy and, well, functioning! The Brain_Florey Institute
  6. Create stimulating environments (including through travel) – Whilst Professor Hannon has demonstrated that environmental enrichment and enhanced physical activity can delay onset, or result in milder progression, or produce overall better disease outcomes, in animal models of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, stroke and traumatic brain injury,  Doidge cites a case study in his book ‘The Brain’s Way of Healing  of a man who has effectively reduced his Parkinson’s symptoms through exercise, mind stimulation, and travel “because the novelty of new countries and new cultures forces him to learn” and turns on brain chemicals essential for processing novel information.  Doidge continues that “travel also stirs one to voluntary walking”. So, the guilty pleasure of travel now need not be so – it’s effectively medicinal!
  7. Connect with nature – a recent article by Ming Kuo, from the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois, published in Frontiers in Psychologystated that time spent in nature had a significant impact on long-term health, by boosting our immune system. The range of improved health outcomes associated with nature include depression and anxiety disorder, diabetes mellitus, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), various infectious diseases, cancer, healing from surgery, obesity, birth outcomes, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal complaints, migraines, and respiratory disease, and has been consistently linked to life expectancy
  8. Spend time in the sun (in moderation) – Doidge talks in his book The Brain’s Way of Healing, about how the healing power of the sun was well known to Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Indians and Buddhist healers, yet that we somehow lost our connection with this life-giving force over the years.  A brief period of reprieve was experienced in the 19th century, when Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, discovered that patients healed much quicker after time spent in the sun. Doidge says that we tend to think of light exclusively as a means to see, yet, light also switches on chemical reactions in our bodies which help us to grow and heal.  In 2014, Dr Tim Aumann analysed the human brains of people from Scotland who died in mid-summer (long days) or mid-winter (short days).  He found four times more dopamine (‘feel good’) neurones in the midbrains of those who died in summer than winter, indicating that sunlight lifts our mood, and, through further work conducted by Aumann, that sunlight and exercise might be helpful in treating diseases linked to midbrain dopamine imbalances, such as Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder and drug addiction.
  9. Listen to music – music therapy has been used for some time to treat patients who have experienced trauma, to overcome the impacts of their experiences, but Doidge cites research and case studies in his book The Brain’s Way of Healing, which demonstrate that the ear is not a passive hearing device, but an active listening device. If damaged through illness or trauma, our ability to listen can be re-wired from a passive to active activity which can improve speech, posture, balance and behaviour.  We know that music can have a relaxing and emotional impact, but understanding that it can also be essential for our health and well-being, moves it into another realm altogether
  10. Reduce stress through mindfulness and meditation – trauma, injury and stress can leave us with a ‘noisy’ mind, quite literally, making it difficult to concentrate, learn and enjoy the simple pleasures of life.  Calming the brain through mediation, and more specifically visualisation, can have a positive impact on our ability to relax and create a positive state of being. Professor Hannan is also investigating the effects on the brain of stress, saying that even just elevating levels of the stress hormone can bring forward particular symptoms. Doidge states that “many of the same neurons that fire when we perceive something in the external world, also fire when we first remember that object or experience.”  Thus, “visualising, remembering, or imagining pleasant experiences activates many of the same sensory, motor, emotional and cognitive circuits that fired during the ‘real’ pleasant experience.” Creating calmness and positivity in our lives has a major impact on long-term health and happiness, and what better way to do that than through travel!

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