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Neighborhood greenspaces boost health on a cellular level

A study from NC State has revealed that neighborhood greenspaces have a positive impact on a genetic marker associated with stress exposure. However, the experts report that these positive effects are not enough to compensate for environmental hazards like air pollution.

“There’s a lot of research that talks about the various ways in which greenspace is beneficial, and a lot of research that talks about adverse health effects associated with pollution, racist segregation in housing, and other social and environmental challenges,” said study co-author Aaron Hipp. 

Focus of the study 

Hipp noted that this study was an attempt to quantify the beneficial impacts of greenspace at the cellular level, and the extent to which greenspace can help to offset environmental harms.

“The role our environment plays in health is important to understand as many areas of the world continue to urbanize. One pathway that natural and social environments can influence health is through the exposome,” explained the researchers.

“The exposome encompasses the various experiences and exposures faced throughout the lifecourse and can shape health outcomes by causing changes in the human body, including at the cellular and genetic level.”

Telomere health

The study revealed that neighborhood greenspaces such as yards, parks, and other public areas are particularly beneficial to our telomeres. These are repetitive DNA sections situated at each end of a chromosome, playing a crucial role in safeguarding chromosome ends from potential damage. 

With every cell division, these telomeres reduce a bit in size. When they become exceedingly short, the cell can no longer divide and ultimately dies.

Biological age 

“This makes telomeres important markers of biological age, or how worn down our cells are,” explained study co-author Scott Ogletree. “And we know that many variables – such as stress – can influence how quickly our telomeres wear down.” 

Focus of the study 

The study was focused on data from the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which was conducted from 1999-2002. 

The researchers analyzed data from 7,827 individuals, taking into account factors like their demographic details, telomere length, and residence. They evaluated the neighborhood greenspaces in each person’s vicinity and related this information to telomere size. 

What the researchers learned 

According to Hipp, the findings show a direct correlation between increased neighborhood greenspace and extended telomeres. This correlation was found regardless of an individual’s racial background, economic status, drinking or smoking habits.

“That’s the good news,” said Ogletree. “However, when we accounted for other characteristics of each neighborhood – air pollution, segregation, or ‘deprivation’ – the positive effect of the greenspace essentially disappeared.”

“Deprivation, in this context, was an overarching variable that included the neighborhood-level data on income, education, employment status, and housing conditions. In other words, while greenspace seems to help protect telomere length, the harm from other factors appears to offset that protection.”

Study implications 

“Greenspace is tremendously valuable for a community, but it is not enough to overcome systemic racism and the effects of economic segregation and environmental justice challenges on its own,” said Hipp. 

“This study drives home the idea that creating greenspace in a community is important, but it’s as crucial – or more crucial – for us to address environmental harms, particularly those tied to systemic racism.”

The research is published in the journal Science of The Total Environment.

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