How greenery can prolong life
When analyzing specific causes of death among the study participants, researchers found that women in greener areas had a 41% lower death rate for kidney disease, a 34% lower death rate for respiratory disease and a 13% lower death rate for cancer than those living in areas with less greenery.
The study suggests that several factors might play a role in reducing the death rate, including improved mental health, which was measured through levels of depression and estimated to explain 30% of the benefit from living in greener areas. Increased opportunities for social engagement, increased physical activity and lower exposure to air pollution may also play important roles, according to the study.
“We were surprised at the magnitude of the mental health pathway,” James said.
Though previous studies have examined the health benefits of exposure to nature, this new study is the first to take a nationwide look at the link between greenness and death rates over a period of several years, he said.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study that looks at residence-based exposure conducted across a broad geographic range, across the entire United States,” he said.
The team adjusted for individual socioeconomic measures and individual health risk factors, such as smoking, helping remove concerns over other factors that could explain the link.
Nature comes in many forms
James stressed that the results of the study aren’t suggesting that people need to move far out to the country in order to live a long life, simply that any increased vegetation seems to be linked to lower mortality.
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“I want to point out that 84 percent of study participants live in urban areas,” he said. “We are not saying you need to live near a park.”
The findings may inform design and planning in neighborhoods. “Policymakers, planners and architects may have this tool to create more healthy and sustainable places,” James said.
“This study is another step in adding to the evidence that nature may be related to better health.”