MINNEAPOLIS — Studies continue to show that nature has a de-stressing effect on people. Now, new findings are adding to this, revealing that living closer to nature can also help ward off psychological distress. Researchers from Washington State University report living closer to both green spaces (outdoor areas, parks, forests) and blue spaces (bodies of water) may reduce the risk of experiencing serious psychological distress among older adults. This trauma often leads to mild cognitive impairment and the onset of dementia.
Study authors defined psychological distress as any mental health problems that require treatment or have a moderate-to-severe effect on a person’s capacity to participate in work, school, and any other social situations. The team assessed a total of 42,980 people over the age of 65 living in urban areas of Washington state during this project.
“Since we lack effective prevention methods or treatments for mild cognitive impairment and dementia, we need to get creative in how we look at these issues,” says Solmaz Amiri, DDes, of Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in Spokane, Washington, in a media release. “Our hope is that this study showing better mental health among people living close to parks and water will trigger other studies about how these benefits work and whether this proximity can help prevent or delay mild cognitive impairment and dementia.”
The research team used data originally gathered by the U.S. Census and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in an attempt to identify how close participants lived to either green or blue spaces. For this study, green spaces included any nearby public parks, community gardens, and even cemeteries. Blue spaces included any body of water, such as a lake, reservoir, large river, and the ocean.
Why does living a half-mile from nature help the brain?
Every study participant completed a survey assessing their levels of psychological distress. The questionnaires featured six questions asking participants how often they felt symptoms of depression and anxiety, using a five-point scale ranging from zero (none of the time) to four (all the time).
Questions included how many days they were unable to work due to psychological distress, how many days their productivity was cut in half by distress, and how many times they sought professional help. These scores ranged from zero to 24, with the average score being two.
Study authors considered participants who scored above 13 on the test to have serious psychological distress — accounting for two percent of the group. Overall, 70 percent lived within half a mile of a green space and 60 percent lived within half a mile of a blue space. Those living within a half-mile of green or blue spaces had a 17-percent lower risk of serious psychological distress in comparison to people living farther away.
Among those living within a half-mile of parks and water, 1.3 percent had serious psychological distress, compared to 1.5 percent of those living further away. It’s also worth noting that this research had some limitations. Researchers say the participants reported subjectively on their psychological distress and thus may have remembered things incorrectly.
“Our hope is that this study may help inform public health policies in the future, from where residential facilities are located to programs to improve mental health outcomes of people living in long-term care centers or nursing homes,” Amiri concludes.
The study will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 75th Annual Meeting.