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Green environments and sidewalks improve heart health

Heart health begins the moment you step outside your door. Imagine being greeted by a view of lush trees and expansive skies, or perhaps a scene dominated by buildings and concrete. This seemingly simple aspect of your daily environment could have a profound impact on your heart health.

A recent study, presented at the American College of Cardiology’s Annual Scientific Session, has shed light on an important health factor. It reveals how our immediate surroundings may influence our risk of experiencing major adverse cardiac events.

Building on this, researchers have made a groundbreaking discovery by leveraging machine learning to analyze Google Street View images. They’ve unveiled a striking correlation: individuals residing in areas abundant with sidewalks, trees, and clear skies face a significantly reduced risk of heart-related incidents.

Impact of environment on heart

“A lot of research has shown that environmental factors strongly affect our health. If we can find a way to stratify this risk and provide interventions before cardiovascular events happen, then we could save a lot of lives,” explained Zhuo Chen, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals Health System in Cleveland, and the study’s lead author.

The study leverages advanced computer vision algorithms and AI. This approach offers a method to quantify the built environment with unprecedented effectiveness and efficiency. Consequently, this opens the door to highly personalized interventions based on individual risk assessments.

Green spaces and urban design

This research is a part of an expanding field focused on understanding the influence of green space and urban design on cardiovascular risk.

Whereas previous studies have offered mixed results due to varied methodologies, this study stands out. It provides a more detailed perspective by analyzing the environment at the street level, moving beyond broad geographic averages to uncover nuanced insights on heart health.

By training a machine learning algorithm to differentiate among trees, grass, sky, sidewalks, buildings, and roads, the researchers embarked on a detailed analysis. They examined the living environments of nearly 50,000 individuals.

The participants, mostly from northeastern Ohio, were part of a program offering free and low-cost screenings for heart disease risk.

Green environments boost heart health

The findings were revealing. Over approximately 27 months, around 2,000 participants suffered major adverse cardiovascular events. Those living in areas with ample sidewalks were 9% less likely to experience such events compared to those in less pedestrian-friendly locations.

Additionally, a high score in vertical green space (essentially trees coupled with clear skies) was associated with a 5% lower risk. These associations remained significant even after adjusting for a variety of factors known to affect heart health, including socioeconomic status and pollutants in the environment.

Trees and skies over grass

Interestingly, the presence of grass did not correlate with cardiovascular event risk, aligning with previous findings that highlight the specific benefits of trees over grass alone. However, it’s the combination of trees and clear sky that seems most indicative of beneficial vertical green space.

To enhance the precision of their assessments, the researchers took a further step. They incorporated depth information into their algorithm, thereby allowing for a more nuanced understanding of the environment’s impact on health.

Despite the compelling nature of these findings, the study’s design does not establish a causal relationship between environmental features and heart disease.

Furthermore, the research did not account for physical activity or travel behaviors. These factors could mediate the relationship between the environment and heart health.

Additionally, the focus on a cohort primarily from northeast Ohio might limit the generalizability of the results to other regions.

Implications for the public

Nevertheless, this study represents a significant step forward in utilizing technology to assess environment’s impacts on heart health at a granular level.

“The method and the data source that we’re using here is cheap, open source, and publicly available,” said Chen, underscoring the accessibility and scalability of their approach.

Although the direct impact of planting trees or adding sidewalks on reducing cardiovascular risk is yet to be confirmed, the research provides crucial insights. These insights do more than just foster awareness; they also suggest avenues for behavioral changes. Furthermore, they point to urban planning strategies that could potentially mitigate heart disease risk in the future.

By harnessing the capabilities of AI and machine learning, the study illuminates the intricate ways in which our neighborhoods shape our health. It encourages a reevaluation of our environmental design and interactions. This carries the promise of fostering communities where healthy hearts can thrive.


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