A new massive review of medical records from Medicare has shown that spending time in nature may lower the risk of hospitalization for Alzheimer’s, dementia and Parkinson’s.

The review examined the records of almost 62 million Medicare members 65 and older. Using zip codes, researchers looked at how living near parks, waterways or vegetation like crops, grass or trees impacted health. For Alzheimer’s, living with more than average vegetation was linked to lower first-time hospitalizations. For Parkinson’s, all three types of green spaces appeared to lower the risk of first-time hospitalizations.

Research has shown that vegetation cleans air more effectively than waterways or parks that may be filled with paved areas or fake turf. The researchers believe this is why people living in vegetation-rich areas fared the best. Air pollution is associated with a higher risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Green areas are often associated with higher incomes. Wealthy areas often have green public spaces. However, the study found very little difference based on wealth. Men and women reaped the same level of benefit from living near nature. Black people were impacted the most by living in green areas. The study did not find why they saw the biggest difference in their health.

We can’t cure these diseases, so it’s important to identify modifiable risk factors so that people don’t get sick,” said lead author Jochem Klompmaker, a research fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Increasing physical activity, lowering stress and air pollution levels can be good for your health.”

Pablo Navarrete-Hernandez is a lecturer in landscape architecture at the Univ. of Sheffield. In the past, he has found that people with homes filled with natural light tend to be happier and healthier. He was a reviewer on the study.  

Prof. Navarrete-Hernandez said, “Research shows that green spaces trigger people’s positive emotions, such as happiness, and reduce negative emotions such as anger, all related to lower stress levels. Laboratory experiments also show that exposure to nature after stressful events helps reduce the body’s stress responses.”

Prof. Navarrete-Hernandez pointed out that people who live in green areas tend to be more physically active. That can slow the progression of Parkinson’s. He also noted that excess stress hormones worsen Alzheimer’s.  

Prior research showed that natural environments — such as forests, parks and rivers — can help to reduce stress and restore attention,” said Dr. Klompmaker. “In addition, natural environments provide settings for physical activity and social interactions, and may reduce exposure to air pollution, extreme heat and traffic noise.”

Not everyone can live in green areas. However, this study may show that getting outdoors into nature more often could benefit our long-term health. Taking trips to forests or lovely fields might not simply be a fun day out but also helpful to brain health. With that in mind, we all should head outdoors as often as possible!

Banner image: Ed Van Duijn via Unsplash

Landscape Architecture 

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