Many previous studies have shown that exposure to vegetated areas and green spaces can be beneficial to our physical and mental health. Recent research published by the European Lung Foundation has now revealed that children whose proximity to vegetation close to their homes increased in the first ten years of life tended to have better lung health. These findings support the idea that families benefit by moving to greener areas, but also highlight the need to create more green spaces in urban areas.
The study, which was led by Dr. Diogo Queiroz Almeida from the University of Porto, was focused on data from the research project known as Geração 21. This initiative began by recruiting over 8,000 mothers and their newborn infants in public hospitals in the Porto Metropolitan Area in 2005 and 2006.
All of the children were invited to be re-evaluated at the ages of four, seven and ten years. However, since not all of the participants ended up giving complete sets of data, the current study on lung health ultimately included data from 3,278 of the children.
Lung function was gauged at ages four, seven and ten using each child’s forced vital capacity (FVC). This is the maximum amount of air a person can blow out after taking in the deepest possible breath and it is a measure of lung volume and size. FVC can indicate how well the lungs are working and help diagnose lung conditions like asthma.
The team used satellite data and maps to assess the amount of vegetation within 100, 250 and 500m of each child’s residence at the time of his or her birth, as well as at the ages of four, seven and ten. In addition, geographical information systems (technology for comparing the geographical locations of different things) were used to determine the distance between children’s home addresses and their nearest park, public garden or other public green spaces at these same ages.
Analysis of the data showed that children whose home surroundings became greener between the time of their birth and their tenth birthday – due either to moving home or to environmental changes – tended to have better lung function.
“Our research suggests the greener, the better. These improvements are modest at around two percent. However, if we look at the whole population, making our neighborhoods greener could have a considerable impact.” Dr. Almeida explained that factors such as differences in physical activity and levels of air pollution were accounted for, but the link between better lung function and increased exposure to vegetated areas persisted.
“We looked at factors like physical activity and air pollution, but the link between lung function and moving closer to green space remained, even after we took these into account,” said Dr Almeida. “It could also be that getting closer to nature reduces stress, which can improve physical health, or it might have a positive effect on children’s microbiomes – the community of different bacteria that live in our bodies.”
“We found that living in greener neighborhoods as children grow up is more important for their breathing than living in a green area when they were born. This may be because babies spend much less time outdoors than children.”
During this study, the researchers also assessed whether there was a link between children’s lung health and the proximity of their homes to rivers and the sea – so-called ‘blue space’. They made use the Portuguese Water Atlas (from the Portuguese “Atlas da Água”) to assess the distance between each child’s residence and the nearest blue space. The researchers found no link with children’s lung health, although it must be noted that less than one percent of the children in the study lived within 800m of any blue space.
“This research strengthens the evidence supporting the benefits of green spaces on respiratory health. Moving to greener areas may be a possible strategy to improve children’s lung function. However, house prices often dictate where families live, any many cannot afford to live in greener neighborhoods,” said Dr. Almeida.
“To reduce health inequalities, we need to make our cities greener, especially in areas where there is little or no green space. In particular, we need to involve children and their carers to make sure our parks and gardens suit their needs.”
The researchers will continue to study the role of green and blue spaces in other areas of children’s health. They are also using focus groups to understand how and why green spaces are used by younger people.
“We know that early childhood is a crucial time for lungs to grow and develop, and that a child’s environment and the air they breathe can have an impact on their lung health for the rest of their life,” said Professor Marielle Pijnenburg of the European Respiratory Society, who was not involved in the research.
“This study suggests that making sure our children grow up close to parks, gardens and green spaces could help improve their lung health, although as the authors said the mechanisms for this are unknown and may be complex. This finding contributes to a growing number of studies that show health benefits of making our neighborhoods greener and healthier.”
The research is published in the European Respiratory Journal.