At the turn of the last century, a popular cure for most major ailments was a stay in the country. The fresh air, it was believed, could strengthen a weak constitution and restore health. Now, new evidence shows that proximity to things green and alive in fact does exert a curative, or at least a protective health benefit.
Researchers from the EMGO Institute VU University Medical Centre in the Netherlands studied the medical records of 345,143 adults. Sorting the records by postal code, the researchers determined the percentage of green spaces such as parks or forests within two miles of each patient’s home. They then reviewed the records for prevalence of 24 different health conditions and found that those subjects living closest to green areas had a lower incidence of 15 of the 24 diseases on the list.
Apparently, the closer to the green, the more powerful the healing effect experienced. Head researcher Jolanda Maas, PhD, says, “The strongest associations we saw between green space and health occurred within a one kilometer [0.6 mile] radius of the home.” Also, the association was strongest for children, for low-income people, and for those who lived in slightly urban areas rather than in the inner city.
Of the health conditions studied, mental health problems were the most affected by the presence of green. Those who lived close to parks or other natural areas had a 30 percent reduced risk of anxiety disorders requiring treatment and a 20 percent reduced risk of needing treatment for depression. It’s no secret that anxiety and depression can lead to a host of other health problems over time. In fact, both anxiety and depression negatively affect longevity, and so if green deprivation compromises mental heath, that surely has some spillover to physical health.
Among the physical ailments, respiratory conditions responded most dramatically to proximity to green. The data showed a sharp reduction of asthma rates, COPD, and upper respiratory infections among people who lived close to nature. An association also was found between green and lowered rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and even back problems.
Earlier studies also underlined the palliative effect of green. Last year, researchers at the University of Glasgow found that the sizeable disparity in mortality rates between rich and poor families narrowed in residential areas closest to nature. In fact, the gap between rich and poor living in the greenest areas was half that in the most urban. In densely urban areas devoid of green, the mortality rate among poor people exceeded that of rich people by 1.93 times, but in the greenest areas, that gap shrunk to 1.43. When considering only death rates by cardiovascular complications, the figures become even more dramatic, with low-income people living in the least green areas having 2.19 times the incidence of death compared to their rich neighbors. But in the greenest places, the cardiovascular death gap between rich and poor ratcheted down to 1.54. Then again, we already knew that the closer people lived to heavily trafficked roads, the higher the incidence of cardiovascular disease.
But what causes the “green effect”? Researchers believe that those living nearest to parks and outdoor recreational areas get more exercise, taking advantage of the opportunities such areas provide. This is particularly true of children. Parks also lead to social encounters, which improve mental health. And, people use parks and green areas simply to relax, so they can be major stress reducers. The researchers think that the reason the effect of green diminished in the heart of the city is because urban parks are considered unsafe so people use them less.
“The role of green space in the living environment for health should not be underestimated,” the study authors wrote in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. “Most of the diseases which were found to be related to the percentage of green space in the living environment are highly prevalent in society and in many countries, and they are the subject of large-scale prevention programs.” The authors say that opening more green space might be an effective use of disease-prevention funds.
Interestingly, the authors did not mention several factors that might be key. First, where green dominates, the golden arches don’t. In other words, neighborhoods with plenty of natural areas probably don’t have fast food joints on every corner, and that means less access to junk food. Studies have shown that the closer people live to fast food restaurants, the more likely that they’ll have major health problems. Also, more green usually means fewer roads and buildings, which translates to fewer emissions from automobiles and places of business. Again, studies have repeatedly shown that the more pollution in the air, the greater the risk of numerous diseases and death. And finally, of course, plants actually remove pollutants from the air.
In fact, an analysis in Australia determined that if roofs in that country’s major cities were replaced with “green roofs” consisting of live plants, the carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced by half a million tons each year. While green roofs cost a bit more than regular roofs to construct, they increase roof life by two times and experts say costs can be recouped in a few years. Although not so common in the US, sales of green roofs in Europe are, so to speak, “through the roof,” with 700 million Deutsch Mark in sales in 1997 in Germany alone. Of course, it might be far more satisfying to walk through a field filled with flowers or to bike through the woods than to climb up to your urban roof for a green fix, but at least the roof is close to home.
When you think about, real estate agents may have been onto something all these many years when they said, “The three most important things to consider when buying a home are: location, location, and location.” But who knew they were talking about your health?