Time spent in “green” places linked with longer life in women

Elizabeth Pegg Frates, MD

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.
– John Burroughs

Can we make humans healthier by growing healthier places? A 2016 analysis found that women living in areas with higher levels of green vegetation had lower rates of mortality. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a nationwide study of approximately 100,000 women from the Nurses’ Health Study. Those women that had homes in areas with the highest level of greenness in the surrounding 250 meters (roughly 820 feet, or a little over 1/10 of a mile) had a 12% lower rate of death compared to the women whose homes had the lowest level of greenness. Specifically, there was a 13% lower rate for cancer mortality, 35% lower respiratory disease-related mortality, and 41% lower rate for kidney disease mortality in the women living in the areas with the highest levels of green vegetation.

Just how does being in green spaces increase longevity?

When trying to figure out just how the greenness was protecting women against death, researchers found a combination of factors that came into play. These included lower levels of depression, increased social engagement, higher levels of physical activity, and lower levels of pollution. There are probably many reasons why being in green spaces might decrease depression. Perhaps people who live in greener areas are more likely to go outside. Exposure to sunlight helps people to make vitamin D, and low levels of vitamin D are associated with depression. Spending time with friends and participating in social activities were also associated with greener areas, and these things can decrease feelings of loneliness and depression. Being outside and experiencing nature has been known to increase feelings of well-being. In fact, some research suggests that even images of nature can lead to increased positive mood.

Exercise is medicine, and the more physically active a person is, the more fit they will be and the healthier they will be. Green spaces invite people to enjoy the outdoors and encourage people to walk, bicycle, or jog for physical activity. When the space around a home is green and full of vegetation, there are likely paths or trails that are in safe and beautiful places. In this study, those women that lived in greener spaces were more physically active.

Living among trees, plants, grass, and flowers provides an environment with less pollution than one with low levels of vegetation. The plants can reduce levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, which lowers the level of pollution. In this study, death from respiratory disease was reduced by about one third in those women who lived in the homes with the highest amount of vegetation. Breathing clean air matters, and plants help to clean the air.

Take advantage of green spaces

If you live in an area with heavy vegetation, this is good news for you. Take the opportunity to improve your health. Get outside and breathe the clean air, walk around the neighborhood, find some friends to walk with you, and enjoy the great, green outdoors. If you do not live in an area with a lot of greenery around you, consider planting some trees, plants, or shrubs. If you live in a highly urban area, you can get involved with local policy to work to encourage your community to increase green spaces. Spend time with friends who live in areas with lots of trees and greenery, consciously seek out green areas as often as you can, and consider vacationing in areas with lots of vegetation.

And for those of us still in the throes of winter… spring isn’t all that far away.

Comments:

  1. Mana Rai

    Congratulations and thanks to the researcher. Wonderful message to the public for better and healthier living. Authorities should be given message to adopt the policies to build green places and plantation of trees.

  2. Beth

    Thank you.

  3. Russ Klettke

    In my work I have come across the New York Restoration Project, something actually created and supported by actress/singer Bette Midler, and admire the organization’s work on this very scenario. They create green spaces in blighted areas of New York City, and they are studying its effects. Learn more here: https://www.nyrp.org/

  4. sgkritzikmd

    It seems that the socioeconomic status of the subjects could confound the results. That is, wealthier people may tend to live in greener areas as opposed to less advantaged people, who might live in urban, less green areas. And since socioeconomic status also correlates with longevity, the effect seen could be a result of that, not green places. Was that controlled for in this study? Thanks for an intriguing article.

  5. Charles Ragen

    While correlation is not causation….Healthy is as healthy does. Parks and plazas are vital in their different roles to maintain the health and sanity of urban dwellers. Imagine Manhattan without Central Park: Bedlam with a score of Caucaphony.
    This is why we should create and maintain parks.
    Especially landscape parks, deciduous forest preserves, public gardens, green and open space ofall kinds.
    If people are fortunate enough to live near an Olmsted heritage park they should be vigilant in its preservation.
    For example, learn more about preserving and enhancing Seattle’s unique landscape parks at: protectvolunteerpark.org.

  6. bengtåke kinander

    I am very greatful for this information. I agree 100%. I work with peoples health every day (pain clinic) and I will use this for inform them !

    bengt åke kinnander
    sweden

  7. nsibambi

    Wonderful article!! this confirms why God is the creator; He spent five days creating an environment suitable for man before he created him as the Bible reads in Genesis 1 and 2.
    Let us make effort of saving the environment we were created in and for and practice the dominion given to us in managing our environment

  8. Sylvia Kaplan

    I would find it interesting to compare women in urban areas adjacent to parks (such a Branch Brook Park in Newark NJ) with women in urban areas not near parks.

  9. Nancy Blake

    ‘Exercise is medicine.’.

    Not for people with ME/CFS/SEID, for whom, according to the IOM Report, ‘exertion of any type, physical, cognitive or emotional, may adversely affect many organ systems.

    For these parients, exercise is toxic.

    Rest from the inception gives the most favourable prognosis.

  10. K McCreless

    Sounds very reasonable. Are there similar studies regarding green effects on men?

    I retired 8 months ago from a congested urban environment to a small rural town in wooded/farming area. The lowered blood pressure, increased sleep, and generally positive mood have been wonderful.

  11. Susy

    Many years ago during a terrible chronic illness, I found peace in walking in the French Alps where I lived – climbing daily and pushing through the pain, with my dogs and cats tagging along. Nature definitely helped me through my battle and I won that battle despite the very poor prognosis.

  12. calle

    Wow, knew this with out the research, now know since a horrible fire, why my life has been so impacted.

    Now have proof for my family as to why my gardens have been so incredibly important for me.

    Have now shared this with my professional health community.

  13. Ellie

    Did the study control for income or wealth? Size of town?

    • Beth

      Great question.

      Per the study authors, “models were adjusted for mortality risk factors (age, race/ethnicity, smoking, and individual- and area-level socioeconomic status.”

  14. Lucas Medeiros

    Dr Elizabeth Frates,

    Your beautiful article reminds me to tap today into the deep source of nature’s positive energy. Friends, greener spaces and well being. Thank you so much!

  15. Armando Ribeiro das Neves Neto

    Wonderful! Parents, educators, managers, politicians and health professionals are responsible for creating a culture of contact with nature. A green life should begin with a change of mentality and start for an effective change of behavior. Lifestyle medicine has been showing the many benefits of a healthier lifestyle.
    Congratulations Dra Frates.

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