Could travel therapy be an effective treatment for dementia?

travel therapy
© iStock/Fabio Camandona

Innovative research emerging from Edith Cowan University (ECU) indicates that travel therapy could have a range of health benefits for patients with dementia and mental health conditions.

Edith Cowan University‘s Centre for Precision Health and School of Business and Law has produced a new cross-disciplinary paper that explores how the tourism industry can be adapted and enhanced to boost the mental health and wellbeing of people with conditions such as dementia.

Interventions such as art therapy and music therapy have become common practice, but the potential benefits of travel therapy remain unclear, with the research team suggesting that travel is not just a recreational experience but an industry that can provide an array of health benefits.

The research team, led by Dr Jun Wen, included experts across the fields of tourism, public health, and marketing and analysed how travel therapy could affect those living with dementia. They discovered that the various aspects of going on holidays could positively impact those with mental health issues or conditions.

Dr Wen said: “Medical experts can recommend dementia treatments such as music therapy, exercise, cognitive stimulation, reminiscence therapy, sensory stimulation and adaptations to a patient’s mealtimes and environment.

“These are all also often found when on holidays. This research is among the first to conceptually discuss how these tourism experiences could potentially work as dementia interventions.”

The paper, titled ‘Tourism as a dementia treatment based on positive psychology’, was published in Tourism Management.

The health benefits of travel therapy

The researchers explained that due to the varied nature of activities on holiday, there are ample opportunities during the trip to implement treatments that will benefit patients with dementia. For instance, research suggests that exposure to new environments and indulging in fresh experiences can facilitate sensory and cognitive stimulations that mitigate the effects of dementia.

Dr Wen commented: “Exercise has been linked to mental wellbeing and travelling often involves enhanced physical activity, such as more walking. Mealtimes are often different on holiday: they’re usually more social affairs with multiple people, and family-style meals have been found to influence dementia patients’ eating behaviour positively.

“Then there are the basics like fresh air and sunshine increasing vitamin D and serotonin levels. Everything that comes together to represent a holistic tourism experience makes it easy to see how patients with dementia may benefit from tourism as an intervention.”

Reshaping tourism as a public health intervention

The researchers explained that the impacts the tourism industry has experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic raised questions about its value beyond lifestyle and economic factors. However, they are confident that their new research will illustrate how travel therapy can be harnessed to improve the lives of people with a range of conditions.

Dr Wen concluded: “Tourism has been found to boost physical and psychological wellbeing. So, after COVID, it’s a good time to identify tourism’s place in public health — and not just for healthy tourists, but vulnerable groups.

“We’re trying to do something new in bridging tourism and health science. There will have to be more empirical research and evidence to see if tourism can become one of the medical interventions for different diseases like dementia or depression. So, tourism is not just about travelling and having fun; we need to rethink the role tourism plays in modern society.”

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