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Greener Childhood Associated with Happier Adulthood

greenspace593In a rapidly urbanizing world, green spaces are shrinking as our cities grow out and up. Scientists are working to understand how green spaces, or lack of them, can affect our mental health.

A study published in the journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) details what the scientists say is the largest investigation of the association between green spaces and mental health.

Researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark found that growing up near vegetation is associated with an up to 55 percent lower risk of mental health disorders in adulthood. Kristine Engemann, the biologist who led the study, combined decades of satellite imagery with extensive health and demographic data of the Danish population to investigate the mental health effects of growing up near greenery.

“The scale of this study is quite something,” says Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist at the University of Richmond who studies the psychological effects of natural spaces. Smaller studies have hinted that lack of green space increases the risk of mood disorders and schizophrenia and can even affect cognitive development.

But more practical factors, like socioeconomic status, family history of mental illness, and urbanization can also have large effects on mental health. Wealthier families, for instance, might be able to afford to live in neighborhoods with more access to nature and also have access to other wealth-related resources that could enhance childhood development.

The strength of the association between green space and risk of psychiatric disorder was similar to other factors known to influence mental health, like socioeconomic status. According to Engemann, it is estimated that about 20 percent of the adult Danish population will suffer from poor psychiatric health within any given year, making these slight changes in risk potentially important.

“Green space seemed to have an association that was similar in strength to other known influences on mental health, like history of mental health disorders in the family, or socioeconomic status,” says Engemann. What’s more, the effect of green space was “dosage dependent” — the more of one’s childhood spent close to greenery, the lower the risk of mental health problems in adulthood.

Engemann cautions that the study does have limitations: “It’s purely correlational, so we can’t definitively say that growing up near green space reduces risk of mental illness.” Establishing cause and effect for variables like these is incredibly difficult, according to Engemann.

Still, the breadth and depth of data used for this analysis add to the circumstantial evidence linking green space and mental health. “The effect is remarkable,” says Lambert. “If we were talking about a new medicine that had this kind of effect the buzz would be huge, but these results suggest that being able to go for a walk in the park as a kid is just as impactful.”

Excerpted from “Greener Childhood Associated With Happier Adulthood” on NPR.com. Read the full article. See the  study abstract on the PNAS website.

Source: NPR | Greener Childhood Associated With Happier Adulthood, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/02/25/697788559/greener-childhood-associated-with-happier-adulthood | © 2019 npr

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