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Green and blue spaces like parks and rivers keep hearts healthy

Have you ever stopped to think about how the spaces and places around us could impact our health? A recent study from Northwestern University lays fascinating groundwork, linking urban green and water spaces to lower chances of coronary artery calcification (CAC), a crucial marker of heart disease.

Leading this significant research is Dr. Lifang Hou, a seasoned professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. The study reveals that these associations of green-blue spaces and heart health are most evident among Black individuals living in economically challenged neighborhoods.

Green and blue spaces

How does having more green and blue spaces bring down the likelihood of CAC? The research points towards the potential of these spaces to provide increased opportunities for physical activities, social interactions, and stress relief.

“Having more green and blue spaces may provide increased opportunities for physical activities, social interactions, stress relief and restoration, all of which have been linked to improved metabolic and cardiovascular health,” Hou said.

“Additionally, exposure to green and blue spaces has been shown to boost people’s immune system, reduce chronic inflammation and slow down the biological aging process, all of which are biologically important in people’s overall health and cardiovascular health. More studies are needed to fully understand the role of urban natural environments in pathways related to human health.”

Heart health near urban green and blue spaces

The numbers from the study speak volumes. Black participants with the highest access to a river showed 32% lower odds of CAC, compared to those with limited access.

Similarly, those with more access to green spaces had up to a staggering 35% lower odds of calcification.

It seems that for each 10%-point increase in green space, the odds of CAC decreased by about 15% on average. Hypothetically, if we could paint our cities a bit greener and bluer, we could chip away at the heart risks that so many face.

Interestingly, the study also found that shorter distances to parks were associated with higher CAC odds in these neighborhoods. The explanation? It could lie in the quality of these parks and safety concerns in the underserved urban neighborhoods that might deter their use. As always, quality trumps quantity.

Need for green and blue spaces

The Northwestern study included almost 3,000 Black and white men and women hailing from four urban cities in the U.S. The research drew its data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, which followed the participants for 25 whopping years.

“The protective effect of having access to urban blue and green spaces with coronary artery calcification highlighted in our study underscore the potential benefits of such infrastructure, particularly for underserved populations at higher risk for cardiovascular disease,” said Hou.

“Our findings provide quantitative evidence supporting environmental policies to enhance the accessibility and quality of residential blue and green spaces, which can promote public health benefit and address racial and neighborhood-related health disparities.”

Environmental and social justice

The gap in access to quality green and blue spaces often reflects wider social inequalities.

Neighborhoods with fewer resources, especially those where Black and other minority communities live, usually have fewer and less well-kept green areas. This unfairness not only affects physical health but also mental well-being, social bonds, and overall quality of life.

To fix these issues, we need a mix of better urban planning, active community involvement, and policy changes. By bringing environmental justice into city planning, we can create healthier living spaces, reduce health disparities, and build more fair and inclusive urban areas for everyone.

Study significance

The study’s findings highlight heart and overall health benefits related to accessible and quality urban green and blue spaces. They stress the importance of environmental policies that enhance these spaces, especially for underserved populations at higher risk for cardiovascular diseases.

In the end, it’s not just about providing green spaces for all, but about making sure they’re safe, clean, and accessible to everyone. After all, when it comes to our neighborhoods, we should all be sitting’ on the dock of the bay, watching the health benefits roll away.

The study is published in the journal Circulation.


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