From a stroll through a local park to a few hours spent at the beach, exposure to nature at any age can offer many health benefits—such as increased feelings of calmness, improved attention, lower blood pressure and decreased risk of heart disease. According to new research published in JAMA Network Open, spending time in natural environments may also provide valuable benefits to older adults, including those with neurodegenerative diseases.
Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found living near green spaces, parks and blue spaces like bodies of water may decrease the risk of first-time hospitalizations in older adults for cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“There are no cures or treatments for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, so I think it’s important to detect modifiable risk factors so that people don’t get sick,” said Jochem Klompmaker, PhD, lead author of the study and a research fellow in the Department of Environmental Health. “This study shows that greenness and blue spaces might be one of them.”
He added that this study is especially important and useful for policymakers and urban planners because the results may help them consider interventions in natural environments and increase greenness or blue spaces.
“If they increase green or blue spaces in areas, it may prevent Alzheimer’s disease, related dementia and Parkinson’s disease hospitalizations,” Klompmaker said. “When you create these natural environments, you allow people to go out, and be physically active, it may reduce stress levels and therefore can prevent diseases.”
What else you need to know about the study
Klompmaker and his colleagues analyzed 16 years’ worth of data that included nearly 62 million Medicare recipients at least 65 years of age, and mapped locations of natural environments like parks, waterways, rivers, lakes, trees, crops and grass.
They used people’s ZIP codes to determine the level of exposure people had to different natural environments. In addition, they used satellite images to calculate the amount of greenness, like vegetation, trees, gardens and crops in an area.
“Greenness in a ZIP code may provide settings for people that may encourage them to go out into a park and be physically active there,” he said. “We know that physical activity is important for [Alzheimer’s], other related dementias and many other diseases.”
Klompmaker noted that because they did not analyze how often participants were exposed to natural environments, they cannot make conclusions or recommendations about how often people should spend in these areas to decrease their risk of cognitive diseases.
Links between natural environments and reduced hospitalizations
More studies are needed to understand how exposure to natural environments could decrease hospitalizations. However, experts believe being in these spaces may reduce stress, improve mental health, and provide settings for physical activity and social interactions—all of which can be helpful in reducing the risk of hospitalizations and developing neurodegenerative conditions.
“Getting patients up and active can be super helpful in reducing risk for hospitalization. Likely those things reduce the associated risk of things like delirium. People who are also getting outside and being active are mentally stimulated,” said Stella Panos, PhD, neuropsychologist and director of neuropsychology for the California-based Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.
Other experts say being in nature can trigger people’s positive emotions (such as happiness) and reduce negative emotions (such as anger). Natural environments can also help with stress, anxiety disorders and depression, which can be triggered by things we encounter every day in cities, like noise, pollution, congestion and crime.
“There is increasing evidence that mental health is negatively affected by urban environments,” Pablo Hernandez, PhD, lecturer in landscape planning in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Sheffield, told Seasons. “Essentially, nature can act as a buffer for a stressful urban life. Green spaces have a lot of well-known benefits, including cooling the city, capturing CO2 and pollution, and increasing water infiltration.”
Hernandez added exposure to nature after stressful events helps reduce the body’s stress responses, including lowering cortisol levels.
“These well-researched mechanisms might help people to end their constant state of stress and its harmful effects on physical and mental health.”
How to spend more time outdoors
- Go for a walk or bike ride in your neighborhood or at a local park.
- Take a break and sit outside on the patio, porch or front yard.
- Schedule a trip to the beach.
- Go fishing at a lake or pond with grandkids or other family members.
- Try gardening.
- Visit the arboretum or botanical gardens.
- Plan a nature trip that can feature boardwalks and other accessible trails.
- Have lunch or a picnic outside.
- Sit outdoors during meetups or family visits.
- Bring nature indoors by adding plants and flowers to your home or living space