Jet lag and regular sleep disruption increase stress and risk of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, doctor says, and then there’s the radiation. Frequent fliers may like to brag about having so many air miles they do not know what to do with them, but all that time in the air comes at a cost to their health.
While many are business travelers and have the luxury of being up at the front of the plane, that does not negate the health impacts of regularly zipping between time zones. Shipping executive Tim Huxley flies from Hong Kong to Europe on business at least one a month. “As you get older you feel more tired for longer. It takes about five days for me to recover from jet lag now,” says Huxley, 58. Research has shown that jet lag can switch off genes linked to the immune system, thus raising the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. And long-term chronic jet lag among airline cabin crew has been associated with cognitive deficits including memory impairment.
While there have been no studies looking specifically at whether frequent fliers age faster, Dr Nichola Salmond, a general practitioner and owner of Optimal Family Health in Hong Kong, says that frequent fliers face jet lag and chronic sleep loss, which increase the risks for diseases that lead to ageing. “One of the big effects is sleep disruption on a regular basis, which is linked to a lot of health problems. It definitely affects metabolism and there is an increases risk of diabetes, heart disease, blood pressure issues,” says Salmond. Air travel can also be stressful. In addition to the time away from the office and the prospect of coming back to an inbox ready to explode, there is the added pressure of traffic delays, security checks and weather issues. And when you eventually get home you are likely beat. “When people are jet lagged, they are more stressed and their cortisol levels are higher,” says Salmond.
Salmond says frequent fliers may well face issues with memory impairment as a result of chronic jet lag, leading to difficulty concentrating and experience cognitive dysfunction. The newer planes are better for reducing jet lag. The Airbus A350s have bigger windows than the old 777s and the air system is better Tim Huxley, frequent flier Sleep issues aside, there are other risks of zipping about in a sealed metal tube. Researchers at the City University of New York say travellers who fly 85,000 miles a year or more should be classified as radiation workers. They show that flying that number of miles a year goes beyond the regulatory limit for public exposure to radiation facilities, and show that radiation exposure among commercial aircrew even exceeds that of nuclear power workers.
Huxley, who clocks up an estimated 200,000 flying miles a year, is well into “radiation worker” territory. “I’m so conscious of the health risk – and also conscious of my footprint – but there’s not much I can do about it,” Huxley says. He may not be able to mitigate his exposure to radiation, but there are some things he can do to limit the health risks associated with frequent flying. Airline meals are packed with salt and sugar. This is because the combination of dry air and low pressure in the cabin reduces the sensitivity of your taste buds to sweet and salty foods by about 30 per cent. All that additional salt and sugar in your diet will be bad for your body over the long term. Eating a meal just before you get on the plane and skipping the cabin meals will address that issue. Salmond recommends staying at a hotel with a gym. Exercise will not only help in terms of fitness, it will also help with jet lag and improve the quality of sleep, she says. And if your hotel does not have a gym, you can always do push-ups or squats in your room.
Hong Kong frequent flier Tim Huxley goes to Tower Bridge to exercise if he flies in to the City of London for a meeting. Photo: Alamy Share: “I always go for a long walk when I land,” says Huxley. “If I’m in Central London I walk around Hyde Park and if I’m in the city I’ll walk over Tower Bridge.” Other strategies he has incorporated to better manage long-haul travel include keeping trips short – flying in for a meeting, staying overnight and returning the following day. The jet lag impact is far less than that of five-day trips. He also tries to get a morning flight to the UK that arrives midafternoon, allowing time for a stroll and dinner before bed. And he chooses his plane wisely. “The newer planes are better for reducing jet lag.
The Airbus A350s have bigger windows than the old 777s and the air system is better,” says Huxley. As many of the frequent flier health issues are related to sleep disruption, Salmond says the people who best manage long-haul travel are the ones who are the most disciplined. If you want to get somewhere and really function, then you often have to use a sleeping pill Dr Nichola Salmond “You can cope better with jet lag if you follow certain rules. It’s good to get into the time zone when you’re en route. Try not to nap – be disciplined about not sleeping when you shouldn’t and staying awake until bedtime,” says Salmond. Many of the patients she sees at her practice in Hong Kong’s Central business district are frequent fliers and jet lag is a common concern. She says she has got nothing against using a sleep aid in-flight to help adjust to a new time zone or to combat jet lag. “If you want to get somewhere and really function, then you often have to use a sleeping pill, half a Stilnox (zolpidem, also marketed as Ambien), or melatonin,” says Salmond. An increasingly popular option for some is an intravenous vitamin drip that boosts hydration, in combination with a “multivitamin cocktail”. “It helps with energy levels. People do it the day they fly or the day they get back. It gives you a short-term energy boost and helps you be more awake,” says Salmond.
The risks to the frequent traveller are cumulative. Someone whose job has them buzzing about the world for just a few years will fare much better than someone who has been doing it for a couple of decades. “It isn’t good for your health, but it will depend on whether you do it for one year or 20,” says Salmond. She adds that, as travel is tiring, people who have a positive attitude cope better than those who are stressed or depressed. Before we get carried away with the possible horrors of too much time in the sky, let’s not forget that travel can be liberating. Long-haul travel, when done in moderation and with fun in mind, can serve to keep us youthful rather than prematurely age us. Jane Gray, chief veterinary surgeon at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, gets out of Hong Kong every two to three months and firmly believes that travel is good for her emotional and physical health. “If you have a stressful job, it’s good to recharge your batteries.
I love the freedom of going to new places. It opens your mind to new ideas and so keeps you young,” says Gray, 55. For her 50th birthday, she took four months off and went overland from Hong Kong to the UK, traveling through China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kurdistan, Turkey, Georgia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland and Belgium. “I wasn’t contactable – no emails, no work. I went to so many different places and met different people. Friends said it took years off me,” she says. Gray caught the travel bug in her late teens, still gets excited before every holiday and believes it has a positive impact on her mental health. Many of her trips involve exercise, which gives a boost to her overall health. “One trip I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro [in Kenya], another time we went hiking and diving on Christmas Island [in the Indian Ocean]. When I’m walking around a new city, I can easily do 30,000 steps in a day,” she says. Salmond says: “Anything that makes you happy is good. I recently saw a study of ageing which showed that happier people live longer. Keeping your brain active helps prevent Alzheimer’s and going to new places is always going to be better than sitting at home watching TV.”