Growing up in a home surrounded by trees and vegetation, rather than city buildings, lowers children’s risk of psychiatric disorders in adolescence and adulthood, a new study finds.
For the study, Danish researchers followed 900,000 children 1985 to 2013.
Children who grew up with the lowest levels of residential “green space” had up to 55% higher risk of developing a psychiatric disorder, they found.
The researchers used satellite images to determine how much green space surrounded the childhood residences of the participants.
The more vegetation they could view from their homes, the better their mental health outcomes.
Being located within a reasonable drive from wilderness areas, public parks, and urban green spaces, didn’t seem to make a difference, only what they could see and touch in their own front or backyard.
The results were also “dosage dependent” — the more of one’s childhood spent close to greenery, the lower the risk of mental health problems.
But this is the first to find green space is a factor similar in strength to other known influences on mental health, such as history of mental health disorders in the family, or socioeconomic status, the authors say.
“If we were talking about a new medicine that had this kind of effect the buzz would be huge,” Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist at the University of Richmond, told NPR. “But these results suggest that being able to go for a walk in the park as a kid is just as impactful.”
What’s still unclear is exactly what it is about living in close proximity to nature that has a protective effect.
Lambert tells NPR, the explanation might run deep. We evolved in forests, and something about being exposed to our “native” habitat might have powerful physiological and psychological effects.
More green space might also encourage more outdoor play, exercise and social interaction or decrease air and noise pollution, she said. Even exposure to a wider diversity of microbes could play a role.
“There are a lot of potential mechanisms to follow up on, but generally I think this study is tremendously important,” says Lambert. “It suggests that something as simple as better city planning could have profound impacts on the mental health and well-being of all of us.”