Living Near Water and Green Spaces Provides Seniors a Mental and Physical Health Boost

Getting outside into the fresh air can be invigorating, and the exposure to all that greenery also comes with plenty of mental health benefits. The exercise, calming effects on our bodies and minds, and connections it can bring with others are good for our physical health, as well. A new study notes that these benefits may also be applicable in older age.

Research recently published in the journal Health & Place investigated how green and blue spaces impacted the health of seniors in urban areas across Washington state. The findings showed that the percentage of green space in a person’s neighborhood, particularly when it comes to trees, was linked with a lower risk of serious psychological distress and better self-rated general health. A closer distance to blue space, meanwhile, provided the same physical health benefits. The researchers say this insight is important for a population that may be less apt to seek help for mental health distress.

Senior woman enjoying green space at park

Adithya Vegaraju, the study’s first author and medical student at Washington State University, explains, “Older adults with depression, anxiety or mental health issues are known to be more resistant to medical interventions or talk therapy, which are the go-to treatments for these conditions. If exposure to green or blue spaces could help prevent, delay or even treat poor mental health in older adults, we need to look at that more closely as a way to improve mental health outcomes in this population.”

Their findings mirror other recent research on older Americans, which found that even for Alzheimer’s patients, proximity to green space was linked with a lower rate of hospitalization.

For this study, the team looked at health survey data taken between 2011 and 2019 from more than 42,000 Washingtonians 65 and older who lived in urban areas. The researchers also determined how much access the participants’ home ZIP codes had to places like forests, parks, and water bodies. Then they compared these two datasets.

Senior woman walking through trees with daughter

Of the study group, nearly 2% had symptoms of serious psychological distress, while 19% reported fair or poor health. The researchers found that with just 10% more forest space in a ZIP code, residents had a lower likelihood of experiencing serious psychological distress, as well as a lower chance of reporting poor or fair health. The latter was also applicable with 10% more blue space.

The researchers say that this shows older adults in urban areas may be at a disadvantage if they don’t have enough nature nearby.

The authors write, “It is possible that unequal access to green and blue spaces may be propagating health inequities among urban-dwelling older adults. Programs which incentivize or encourage ‘nature interventions’ or other forms of exposure to green and blue spaces for urban-dwelling, older adults may be beneficial for their health and reduce health inequities.”

Senior couple riding bikes through park

They say that to learn more, though, further studies with a larger and more diverse group of participants is necessary. The team also hopes to study how green and blue spaces influence dementia and mental health issues that can lead to cognitive decline.

Past research has found that nature may help alleviate some symptoms of Alzheimer’s. To learn more about that, and other mental health benefits of the outdoors, click here!

People, Pets & Planet

Help where it’s needed most at GreaterGood for free!