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Access to nature improves the mental health of older adults

In a study from Washington State University, researchers have uncovered a significant correlation between the proximity of older adults to green and blue spaces and their mental and physical well-being. 

The study offers compelling evidence that even small increases in access to nature can markedly improve the health outcomes of older adults.

Key findings

A mere 10% increase in forest space within a person’s ZIP code is linked to a noticeable decrease in serious psychological distress. This type of distress encompasses mental health challenges that necessitate treatment and hinder normal social, occupational, or educational functioning.

Similarly, enhancing green spaces, tree coverage, water bodies, or trail lengths by 10% appears to lower the likelihood of older individuals reporting their overall health as poor or fair.

How the research was conducted 

The researchers analyzed health survey data from over 42,000 people aged 65 and above residing in urban areas of Washington state, spanning the years 2011 to 2019.

The experts related the health outcomes of these individuals to various measures quantifying their access to nature within their residential areas.

Comprehensive analysis 

Initially presented at the American Academy of Neurology Annual Meeting in April 2023, the research focused solely on the link between psychological distress and proximity to natural spaces.

The final study expanded to include additional metrics such as green space percentage and trail length, also taking into account demographic variables like race and education.

Public health implications 

“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,” said study first study author Adithya Vegaraju, a medical student in the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

Vegaraju said this research is among the first in the U.S. to specifically investigate the relationship between access to nature and health in the older population.

Nature prescriptions 

“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,” said Vegaraju. 

“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.”

According to Vegaraju, one potential solution could involve “nature prescriptions,” a growing trend that involves healthcare providers giving patients written recommendations to spend time outdoors.

Further research is needed 

Senior study author Solmaz Amiri, a research assistant professor in the WSU College of Medicine, said further studies are needed to know exactly how exposure to green and blue spaces may lead to better mental and general health. She plans to study the possible link between nature exposure and cognitive decline, which can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

“It is thought that exposure to green and blue spaces could help slow cognitive decline,” said Amiri. “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.”

Amiri hopes this research will help resolve health inequities among older adults from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, which may be tied to unequal access to green and blue spaces in the urban areas where they live.

The study is published in the journal Health & Place.

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