The bushes and trees peeping out from your windows may be pretty, but they’re also probably doing you more good than you might imagine. According to new research out of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, women who lived in green areas, surrounded by vegetation, had lower mortality rates than those living in non-green areas. This provides more evidence for the notion that living near nature makes you live a longer, healthier life.
Scientists and psychiatrists have known for quite a while that being among the trees can boost mental health, relieving symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression. City-dwellers who had access to parks were more likely to experience improved mental and cardiovascular health, one 2015 study found. Another study even found that bits of nature in the office — like plants — could improve productivity and wellbeing by 50 percent. In short, the more green you can add into your life, the better.
In the latest study, researchers focused primarily on how greenery improved mental health, and how this affected their mortality risk. They examined 108,630 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study in the U.S. from 2000 to 2008, comparing their risk of mortality to the level of plant life or vegetation near their homes. They measured levels of vegetation using satellite imagery from different seasons and years. In analyzing causes of death in the participants, the researchers found that women in green areas had a 34 percent lower rate of respiratory disease-related mortality and a 13 percent lower rate of cancer mortality compared to those who had the lowest amount of green around their homes.
“We were surprised to observe such strong associations between increased exposures to greenness and lower mortality rates,” said Peter James, research associate in the Harvard Chan School Department of Epidemiology and author of the study, in the press release. “We were even more surprised to find evidence that a large proportion of the benefit from high levels of vegetation seems to be connected with improved mental health.”
It’s certainly possible that the women in greener areas had lower rates of respiratory- or cancer-related causes of death because they were less exposed to air pollution, though the current study doesn’t examine that. Air pollution has been linked to premature births, lung cancer, heart disease, and increased mortality. Other factors involved could be lowered noise pollution, improved mental health, and more opportunity for physical activity — like taking walks, biking, hiking, or running in green areas. Taking a walk in nature can directly boost mental health by helping you avoid rumination, increasing your focus, and clearing your mind.
If you live in a city and find it hard to get away from concrete and car exhaust, find the best parks to spend time in after work or on the weekends. Even for those who love city living, being surrounded by green at every opportunity will only reap benefits.
Source: James P, Hart J, Banay R, Laden F. Exposure to Greenness and Mortality in a Nationwide Prospective Cohort Study of Women. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2016.