Tom Blackwell Jul 22, 2011 – 8:00 AM ET | Last Updated: Jul 21, 2011 9:07 PM ET
With plenty of spare cash and a wanderlust like no previous generation, a tide of elderly Canadians is set to take over the foreign travel market — and in doing so present doctors with a host of health problems, concludes a new government-commissioned report.
The unprecedented numbers of older people likely to travel abroad in coming years will face a litany of health risks, from more danger of blood clots on long flights to potentially harmful reactions to tropical-disease vaccines, the report to the Public Health Agency of Canada says.
And part of what’s driving the phenomenon, according to travel-medicine experts, is the penchant for this generation of seniors to head off on increasingly exotic foreign adventures, equipped with the money and good health that make bucket-list destinations possible.
“These are the people who now have the money and in the old days they went to Europe. Now they want to go to more exotic destinations,” said Dr. Jay Keystone of the University Health Network’s tropical-disease unit in Toronto.
“I’m seeing older people climb Kilimanjaro, do the Inca Trail. I can’t believe it…. Diseases may be more severe, vaccines may not work as well and one vaccine [for yellow fever] is clearly more dangerous.”
Older people already comprise a disproportionate chunk of the Canadians who travel outside of this country and the U.S., said the article by the Committee to advise on tropical medicine and travel (CATMAT), with those over 55 making up 34% of such international trips in 2008.
The numbers are destined to balloon as the population ages.
The first wave of baby boomers are swelling the ranks of the retired by 500,000 a year and the travel industry predicts that the number of over-50s flying overseas will have doubled between 1996 and 2016, the report said.
What is more, those aging boomers are changing the face of senior travel, which once evoked images of genteel seaside resorts in south Florida and the like.
It is expected that demand for adventure travel will increase and for guided, motor-coach tours diminish among older Canadians, the committee said.
“This generation is more educated, has more disposable income, has more available time for leisure and travel and is more likely to have engaged in international travel earlier in life than preceding generations,” the document said. “Data suggest that seniors are neither deterred from travel by chronic health conditions, nor adequately prepared.”
Older Canadians are clearly much more mobile and active than in the past and forming a burgeoning segment of the international travel market, concurred David McCaig, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies.
“They’re not just willing to sit at home,” he said. “They are very much interested in the cultural experiences. They’ve moved beyond, many of them, wanting to sit on a beach and play in the sun.”
The report, though, includes a catalogue of unique health issues that senior travellers should address, including a greater risk from common infectious diseases. The threat of serious complications from malaria, for instance, nearly doubles to 61% among those over 60 compared to adults generally.
And yet immunization against such illnesses is less than a clear-cut solution. Older people’s generally diminished immune systems means that vaccines are often less potent, the report noted, and some shots can actually be hazardous to seniors. Yellow fever vaccine, highly recommended for travel to places like Africa, can cause rare but potentially fatal neurological side effects, with the risk almost tripling for those over 70.
Older travellers may also be more susceptible to the so-called economy-class disease, where blood clots form in the extremities during long, cramped flights, then sometimes swim to the lungs when passengers get up to leave, the committee said.
The chronic diseases that many older Canadians suffer from can also cause problems, said the report, which cited a study of older travellers to a remote Australian location, half of whom failed to pack enough of their drugs to last the whole trip.
“The elderly are sicker,” said Dr. Keystone. “If they have a heart attack overseas, are they less likely to survive? You bet they are.”
Still, he said he would not discourage older people from expanding their horizons that way, only urge them to prepare in advance and bring with them detailed health information, from a doctor’s description of any existing illnesses, to lists of drugs they take and even copies of cardiograms if they have heart conditions.