Studies Show That Living Among Nature Improves Mental and Physical Health – Published by the AJC
A 2016 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that people who live in “greener” areas, with more vegetation around, have a lower risk of mortality. The research relied on data from a long-term Harvard study dating back to 1976, as well as satellite data of the vegetation near the homes of participants.
The researchers found that people living in the greenest places — that is, people who had the most vegetation within 800 feet of their homes — had a 12 percent lower mortality rate. The biggest improvements related to reduced risk of death from cancer, lung disease and kidney disease.
These results were the same regardless of a persons’ income, weight and smoking status, and did not change significantly between urban and suburban locations.
Nature’s call to the wild
In certain ways, science is proving what we’ve always known intuitively: nature does good things to the human brain and makes us healthier and happier.
Building on advances in neuroscience and psychology, researchers have begun to quantify what once seemed mysterious. In a similar study in 2015, an international team overlaid health questionnaire responses from more than 31,000 Toronto residents onto a map of the city, block by block. Those living on blocks with more trees showed a boost in heart and metabolic health equivalent to what one would experience from a $20,000 gain in income. Fewer stress hormones in the blood have also been connected to living close to green space.
The benefits of nature are pouring in at a time of large-scale public health problems, such as obesity, depression and age-related illnesses such as dementia. Steve Benjamin, CEO of Validus Senior Living, is one of several senior housing experts who has noticed the emerging data on nature and health. In the past few years, he’s developed senior living communities that incorporate nature throughout the design and activities.
The team’s newest community in Alpharetta, located less than a mile from Avalon, features 30 acres filled with walkways and trails, a fenced dog park, putting greens and screened gazebos. On the activity side, the community offers walking clubs, water aerobics, outdoor art programs, and events like marshmallow roasts and putting challenges. Many off-site activities are also held in outdoor settings, such as local park outings or daily shuttles to Avalon, an open-air shopping center.
“We want [residents] to be getting involved, both socially and physically,” said Arthur Eyzaguirre, the executive director of Inspired Living at Alpharetta.
According to staff, these natural settings, paired with planned activities or impromptu get-togethers with neighbors, can give older adults the feeling of restoration and renewal, while helping to offset problems such as isolation and memory loss.
How nature can prolong life
The findings in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that participants in greener areas had a 41 percent lower death rate for kidney disease, a 34 percent lower death rate for respiratory disease and a 13 percent lower death rate for cancer than those living in less green areas.
The data suggests that social engagement, level of physical activity and exposure to air pollution likely explained how green spaces were making the difference.
There are also several theories about how nature impacts mental health. Spending time in Mother Nature has been linked to improved concentration, reduced inflammation, stress reduction and more restful sleep.
Nature walks also have memory-promoting effects that other walks don’t. In one study, students from the University of Michigan were given a brief memory test, then divided into two groups. One group took a walk around an arboretum, and the other took a walk down a city street. When the participants returned, and did the test again, those who had walked among the trees did almost 20 percent better than the first time. The ones who had taken in city sights instead did not consistently improve.
“Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost,” the researchers wrote in their paper. It exists, they continued, and it’s called “interacting with nature.”
Inspired Living at Alpharetta, a new an independent living, assisted living and memory care community opening Aug. 10, was designed with the outdoors in mind, so residents can experience mental and physical health benefits. The 30-acre community is located 0.8 miles from Avalon, a popular mixed-use development.