SPOKANE, Wash. — Americans have been leaving big cities in droves in recent years, and now a new study is giving older adults another reason to move. Scientists from Washington State University have found that even small, seemingly insignificant, differences in the availability of green and blue spaces across urban areas may contribute to improved mental and physical health. In other words, the more nature near your home, the better you’ll likely feel.

Study authors found that just 10 percent more forest space in a person’s residential ZIP code contributes to a reduction in serious psychological distress, which refers to mental health problems that require treatment and may interfere with one’s social life, work, or school. Meanwhile, another 10 percent increase in green space, tree cover, water, or nature trails also appeared to lower the odds that older individuals reported their general health as either poor or fair.

“Our findings suggest that loss of our urban green and blue spaces due to rapid urbanization may not just have an environmental impact but could have a public health impact as well,” says first study author Adithya Vegaraju, a medical student in the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, in a university release.

These findings are based on health survey data collected from over 42,000 people 65 and older who lived in urban regions of Washington state between 2011 and 2019. During the analysis, researchers compared each person’s general and mental health to various measures that reveal their access to green and blue spaces within their residential ZIP codes. While close to two percent of the participants displayed signs of serious psychological distress, 19 percent reported dealing with fair or poor general health.

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This work focused solely on the relationship between serious psychological distress and distance to the closest green and blue space. However, the final report expanded the scope of the study by adding several additional measures, such as the percentage of green space, tree canopy, forest area, and open space within ZIP codes in addition to the length of trails. Researchers were also sure to expand their analyses to include how each measure related to self-rated general health. This also helped account for differences in survey respondents’ demographics (race, education level, etc).

While prior projects have analyzed how proximity to nature might impact health, Vegaraju believes this study is among the first ever to assess this relationship in older U.S. adults. Older individuals are especially vulnerable to mental health issues such as depression, which can also increase one’s risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Older adults are also generally less likely to undergo treatment for mental health conditions.

“Older adults with depression, anxiety or mental health issues are known to be more resistant to medical interventions or talk therapy, which are the go-to treatments for these conditions,” Vegaraju explains. “If exposure to green or blue spaces could help prevent, delay or even treat poor mental health in older adults, we need to look at that more closely as a way to improve mental health outcomes in this population.”

older woman gardening
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Researchers believe a potential solution may be nature prescriptions, which is a growing trend in healthcare that involves doctors giving patients written recommendations to spend time outdoors.

Senior study author Solmaz Amiri adds more research is necessary to understand exactly how exposure to green and blue spaces promotes better mental and general health. Moving forward, she wants to study the possible link between nature exposure and cognitive decline, which is often an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

“It is thought that exposure to green and blue spaces could help slow cognitive decline,” concludes Amiri, a research assistant professor in the WSU College of Medicine and a researcher in the Institute for Research and Education to Advance Community Health (IREACH). “What we would like to know is if green and blue space exposure can influence dementia directly or whether it can do so by reducing mental health issues that may lead to cognitive decline.”

In conclusion, study authors hope their work will help adults from lower socioeconomic backgrounds feel better in old age, especially since such individuals usually have unequal access to green and blue spaces in the urban areas where they live.

The research team’s preliminary findings were presented at an American Academy of Neurology Annual Meeting in April 2023. The study is published in the journal Health & Place.

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