Living near green space reduced the prevalence of disease according to a new Dutch study published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. The prevalence of anxiety and depression were most influenced by access to nature. Additionally, the influence of green space near home was more important than green space further away.
This was the first study of its kind to assess the relationship of green space in people’s living environment with specific diseases. Increasing evidence has supported a positive association between green space and self-reported measures of physical and mental health.
Dutch researchers collected morbidity statistics using medical records from about 200 general practice physicians serving over 345,000 patients. Diseases were clustered into 24 groups, involving seven disease categories including cardiovascular, neurological and mental health. Using environmental data, the percentage of green space was calculated within a 1 km (or 0.6 miles) and 3 km (or 1.8 miles) radius of more than 50,000 postal codes.
The annual prevalence rate of 15 of 24 disease clusters was lower in living environments that were within 1 km of green living space. The relationship was strongest for those with anxiety and depression disorders. But, an inverse relationship was also found with musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
The annual prevalence of disease within 3 km of green space was less pronounced. Only 3 of 24 disease clusters – anxiety disorders, digestive disorders and unexplained physical symptoms – were lower for those living near more distant green areas.
The incidence of anxiety disorders and depression went down as more green space in the nearby area increased. In areas with only 10 percent green space, about 2.6 percent of people experienced anxiety disorders compared with just 1.8 percent of people in areas with 90 percent green space. Similarly, about 3.2 percent of people experienced depression in more urban areas whereas 2.4 percent experienced this disorder in more rural areas.
Further analysis showed that the prevalence of nearby green space was more important to children (under 12 years) and adults 45 to 65 years old than other age groups. The strongest relation in children for disease prevalence was the reduction in depression.
Disease prevalence was lower if green space was within 1 km for those in lower income groups and those living in slightly urban areas (as opposed to very strongly urban).
The study authors hypothesized that in children and those of lower socioeconomic status, their relative lack of mobility means they spend more time in their local environment. So, the impact of the green space is strongest. They also reasoned that nearby green space did not play a role in those living in very strongly urban areas because green space can be associated with feelings of insecurity (as it relates to crime).
The Bottom Line
With the recession, stress, anxiety and depression are more common than ever. But, as this study demonstrates, getting back to nature can help to reduce these feelings and improve overall mental health.
Whether you live in a rural or more urban area, taking the time to get outside, get some fresh air will not only benefit your mental health but may reduce your risk of developing certain diseases. If you have children, encouraging them to get outside also appears to be very important in their development.