I often write about the benefits of spending more time in Nature. So — of course — the new nationwide study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health caught my eye. It came to some very strong conclusions about the connection between green living space and longevity in women.
For this study, Harvard researchers analyzed data from about 100,000 women in the long-term Nurses’ Health Study, which has yielded many important health observations over the years.
They looked at the amount of green space in the area surrounding the homes of women participating in the studies. They included the surrounding 250 meters, roughly 820 feet, or 1/10 mile. Evidence linked living in areas with the greatest amount of green space with a 12 percent lower death rate among women, compared to women whose homes had the least amount of green space around them.
The health benefits for individual, disease-specific death rates were even more significant — with decreases of 13 percent in cancer, 35 percent in respiratory diseases, and 41 percent in kidney disease for women living in areas with the greatest amount of green space.
Researchers also evaluated four other factors that came into play…
First, the women who lived with more green space experienced lower levels of depression. This makes sense since people who live with more green space are more likely to go outside. Exposure to sunlight helps people synthesize vitamin D, which benefits mood. Just spending time outside in the sunshine, experiencing Nature increases feelings of well-being as well.
Second, the women in the study who lived with more green space were more physically active. Again, this finding is not a far reach. More green space encourages people to enjoy the outdoors and engage in moderate, healthy physical activity.
Third, the women surrounded by more green space also had more social engagement. Although their dwellings were spread farther apart, women surrounded by more green space felt “closer” to friends and neighbors compared to women who lived closer together physically.
People living in areas with less green spaces (typically urban settings) are much closer to each other physically (literally living on top of each other), but they actually have less social interaction, go out less, and spend more time in their already restricted indoor spaces.
Fourth, the women living in green spaces experienced less pollution. Of course, living among flowers, grasses, trees, and plants provides a more pleasant environment with less pollution, compared to areas with less vegetation. Plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the environment during photosynthesis. (Some plants even release oxygen during hours of darkness.) Plants also reduce nitrogen dioxide and particulates in air, which lowers pollution.
So — this could help explain why women living with more green space had a more than one-third reduction in respiratory disease death rates.
We can also relate these findings to the history of health and vitality in American society…
Move into the cities does not benefit health
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third U.S. president, often wrote about the importance of living on — and with — the land. He said a healthy society in agrarian democracy requires it. He also cautioned against the unhealthy effects of living in dense, urban environments.
Not everyone heeded his advice. By the mid-1800s, people who lived in densely populated areas like Boston and New York had restricted access to sunlight, fresh foods, and green spaces. As a result, they also suffered from diseases such as rickets, from vitamin D deficiency.
Of course, Jefferson also advocated a political system that favored education, free press, and limited government. He shied away from aristocratic rule, or the rule of intellectual elites, although he was one of the greatest intellectuals of his time, or of any time.
Jefferson had faith that reason ruled the majority of citizens. And his republican beliefs favored a largely rural populace with limited governmental interference. He also envisioned a federal government of limited powers, which put him at odds with city dwellers like John Adams (Boston), the second president, and Alexander Hamilton (New York), who wanted a powerful central government. (A new generation has re-discovered Hamilton through a much-celebrated Broadway musical in the largest, densest city in the U.S.)
More generally, major debates arose regarding the social effects of urbanization on the health of the citizenry during national elections about every 20 years throughout the 1800s. But I always come back to Jefferson’s ideal of an agrarian democracy. In my view, it continues to have merit for ways to improve America’s physical, mental and even financial health.
Seek out Nature when you can
Wherever you live, get out into Nature and breathe the clean air, go for a walk, and find some family and friends to go with you. Where you can, plant flowers, shrubs, trees, and plants.
In the upcoming May 2017 Insiders’ Cures newsletter, I will tell how you can plant blueberry bushes in your yard, or in a planter or large pot, for double benefits. (If you’re not already a subscriber, you can get started today by clicking here.) And if you don’t have a lot of green space around you, go to areas with lots of vegetation on vacation, weekends and holidays.
And remember, this new study only considered the benefits of living with green spaces at home. It did not consider the time spent at work. Since all the women were nurses, they were typically trapped in unhealthy indoor spaces at work in clinics and hospitals. Imagine the benefits of living and working with more green spaces.
Just another big reason hospitals need more green spaces, not just for patients, but for health practitioners, as I reported last year regarding the Prouty Gardens — which is associated with Harvard, where this study was done.
“Time spent in ‘green’ places linked with longer life in women,” Harvard Health Publications (www.health.harvard.edu) 3/9/2017