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Children who grow up in less green environments have up to 55% higher risk of developing mental disorders later in life than those who grow up in greener spots, according to a study from Aarhus University in Denmark and published this week in the peer-reviewed American Journal PNAS.
To determine this, the researchers looked at satellite imagery of Denmark from 1985 to 2013 to figure out how much green space was around the homes of children. They then compared that to the risk of 16 mental disorders in adulthood, including substance abuse, OCD, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, depression and personality disorders.
The result: Those who lived in capital cities with the least green space tended to have the highest risks of mental disorders, while those in rural areas with more green space had the lowest risk. This was true even controlling for socioeconomic factors and parental history of mental illness.
What’s more, the longer you’re in greener spaces during childhood, the better your odds of good mental health.
“The risk of developing a mental disorder decreases incrementally the longer you have been surrounded by green space from birth and up to the age of 10,” says study author Kristine Engemann, a postdoctoral student in the Department of Bioscience and the National Centre for Register-based Research at Aarhus University. “Green space throughout childhood is, therefore, extremely important.”
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Of course, this study does not prove causality. And, you can live in a big city and live near a lot green space. The study found that was as helpful to your future mental health as being surrounded by the same amount of green pace in a rural area.
This isn’t the first study to find that green spaces can improve people’s mental health. Taking a 50-minute walk in nature reduces anxiety and boosts happiness, a recent study published in the journal Landscape & Urban Planning revealed, and exposure to nature “reduces mental fatigue and the feelings of irritability that come with it,” according to a separate report published in Environment & Behavior.
Overall, there’s a large body of evidence that suggests urban environments are correlated with higher mental illness. “Nearly a century of research has shown higher risk of mental disorder among persons living in urban versus rural areas,” according to a study published in the journal Epigenetics, which looks at the genetic origins of disease and ill-health.
So what is it about greener pastures that promote health? It’s not entirely clear, but some scientists suggest it can physically change us, differing our brain activity, lowering blood pressure and more.
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