Travel and The Age of Change

After thirty days at sea, three salt-and-grime crusted Spanish ships dropped anchor near the shores of an unknown land. More than 200 men clambered into dinghies and rowed to shore, mesmerized by the lush tropics that awaited.

Palm trees soared into a cloudless forget-me-not sky as the commodore surveyed the scene. He felt sure he’d discovered the hiding spot of his life’s ambition; the secret to eternity, the Fountain of Youth.

The year was 1513, and in actuality explorer Ponce de Leon hadn’t discovered much of anything. While leading a self-funded expedition from Bimini to Puerto Rico he ran into the east coast of the United States, which was (by the way) already populated with native people. He wasn’t even the first Spaniard to land there; slave traders had been raiding the area for years.

Of course, he didn’t know that at the time.

Convinced that the glory he sought was nestled deep in the alligator-ridden swampland, he dubbed the territory “Florida,” then pushed his men across it with ruthless abandon. Ironically, it’s this cruelty that marked Leon forever in infamy, and the reason why more than five centuries later we still know his name.

Leon’s obsession isn’t a lonely one, history brims with the quest for eternal youth. The legend of Gilgamesh–one of the earliest written records in existence–centers around a hero who searches for immortality after watching his friend die in battle. Two thousand years later, Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, sent hundreds of soldiers scouring the world for the fabled Elixir of Life. The mercury pills prescribed to Shi Huang by his doctors, said to induce immortality, eventually poisoned him to death.

But as myth, legend, and mercury gave way to science and technology, the average human lifespan did lengthen dramatically. According to a report by the National Institute on Aging, in the 20th century alone life expectancy has increased by three additional months each year. They remarked that the accomplishment ranks as “one of society’s greatest achievements,” a sentiment shared by the Global Coalition on Aging (GCOA).

“We believe the aging of our global population to be one of the most, if not the most, powerful mega-trends of our time,” Michael Hodin, CEO of the GCOA, tells BTR. The coalition aims to shape the thinking around that mega-trend, and to begin building the base for a marketplace that is receptive to it.

The “21st century demographic age change,” as the GCOA calls it, encompasses longevity, but also a decrease in the average birthrate, which various studies correlate to urbanization, and economic and social development. The exact relationship between these factors has yet to be clarified, but the prevailing theory is that they allow for a greater ability to self-regulate fertility. In other words, people are better able to decide when to start having children and how many to have.

What’s more, the trend is not limited to the U.S., or even first-world countries. Hodin sites statistics from all over the planet; Germany, Japan, India, even tribes in Africa, all exhibit similarly low birth rates.

“It’s to the point where the proportion of old to young is transforming what society looks like, and that makes it more profound than that we’re all just living longer” stresses Hodin.

This transformation will only deepen as we move into the future. Even as you read this, gene-editing developers (like those at the company CRISPR) are inching ever closer to isolating and eradicating cancer causing mechanisms in the human genome, effectively curing the disease in a person before they are born. Success would end one of the most common causes of premature death.

Taking all of this into account, The GCOA works to build an infrastructure for the next generation’s demographics, when the average life expectancy pushes past 100.

“We have a current moment that demands immediate and acute change, because we’re now realizing we basically aren’t prepared [for the longevity],” Hodin says. “You need only look at present social and economic institutions to see that.”

Bearing this in mind, the GCOA began investigating what might contribute to the continued mental acuity of older people. In a project that garnered widespread media attention, they teamed up with the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, and the U.S. Travel Association, to conduct a wide survey of experts in the field, many of whom were involved in longitudinal health research that spanned decades.

They discovered that travel reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia, most likely by challenging the mind with new situations that the traveler must navigate. Much like doing a crossword puzzle or reading, cognitive stimuli keeps the mind sharp, but travel also has the added bonus of physical activity.

The survey also found that travel greatly diminishes stress, a well-known contributor to a slew of health concerns including high blood pressure and the overproduction of the hormone cortisol, which speeds up the aging process.

“It’s not like we have solid, absolute ‘proof,’” Hodin emphasizes, referring to experimental data irrefutably demonstrating travel increases lifespan. “But we do have clear indicators and a lot of very smart people who work in this field have looked at the evidence, and make a very strong case.”

As more research into the specifics is conducted, Hodin believes the causality will become clearer.

Until then, you can certainly use the evidence to quit your job and go see the world.