- This is the first study to statistically measure heart health versus greenery
- A team at the University of Louisville assessed the health of 408 outpatients
- They assessed each person’s exposure to greenery using NASA satellite images
- The team also measured the air quality of each person’s neighborhood
- They found a clear correlation between air quality and good heart health
- AHA chief scientific officer Mariell Jessup said it’s imperative that parks are safefor Americans so everyone can move more
Tree-lined streets and nearby parks aren’t just idyllic – they protect you from heart disease, stroke, and an early death, a new study shows.
Researchers analyzed the cardiovascular health more than 400 people across the US using urine and blood samples.
They then measured their home’s ‘vegetation’ level and air quality using NASAsatellite imagery.
Unequivocally, people who lived in leafy, green areas within walking distance of a public park had healthier hearts, higher capacity to repair blood vessels, and less stress.
That was regardless of their age, sex, ethnicity, their use of statins and even their smoking status.
Researchers analyzed blood and urine samples of 408 people in Louisville, Kentucky, then measured their home’s ‘vegetation’ level and air quality using NASA satellite imagery. There was a clear link
Experts say the findings emphasize the importance of access to green spaces for all Americans – something which is less common in disadvantaged communities which already have an elevated heart disease risk from stress and poor diet.
‘Our study shows that living in a neighborhood dense with trees, bushes and other green vegetation may be good for the health of your heart and blood vessels,’ said lead author Aruni Bhatnagar, professor of medicine and director of the University of Louisville Diabetes and Obesity Center.
‘Indeed, increasing the amount of vegetation in a neighborhood may be an unrecognized environmental influence on cardiovascular health and a potentially significant public health intervention.’
The study, published on Tuesday in the Journal of the American Heart Association is the first to statistically assess the connection between greenery and heart health.
All previous studies have been done based on interviews, asking participants to assess how green their neighborhood is, and/or how healthy they feel.
This study created detailed aerial maps of each area to measure exactly how green it is, and used EPA data to measure pollution levels.
Over the course of five years, the research team recruited 408 people from the University of Louisville’s outpatient cardiology clinic, of a broad range of ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.
All of them had experienced heart issues in one form or another.
Each person was required to offer blood and urine samples before undergoing a physical to measure biomarkers of blood vessel injury and the risk of having cardiovascular disease.
When they connected all the dots, Dr Bhatnagar’s team found a clear correlation between greenery and heart health.
It adds some data-driven weight to something that cardiologists and demographers are well aware of.
For example, it’s regarded as no coincidence that Minneapolis-St Paul, the healthiest urban area in the country, has better access to parks than anywhere else – almost every resident (98 percent) lives within 10 minutes of a park, data show.
Why do parks make us healthier?
Although there seem to be many obvious reasons, it’s not exactly clear. Researchers have tried to find a good, succinct explanation but haven’t found one yet.
One study published last year concluded that people who lived closest to forests (in Germany) had better mental health than their urban peers. The researchers found forest-dwellers had better functioning in their amygdala, the brain region that controls emotion.
What’s more, parks give Americans a good reason to get some sunlight exposure, which most are lacking (the majority of the country is vitamin D-deficient).
Crucially, it gives us an opportunity to get moving.
Heart disease rates are on the rise, and progress to curb heart disease deaths has slowed. A lot of that is driven by America’s woefully poor, greasy diet.
But a lack of physical activity is the other big issue cardiologists are most concerned about.
‘Lifestyle in many of our communities is not conducive at times to healthy living,’ Dr Mario J Garcia, MD, a cardiologist at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York, told DailyMail.com.
‘People easily commute by car or train from home to work, from work to home, and they might be sitting most of the time at a desk job. At home they’re sleeping or sitting on the couch.’
At Montefiore, home to New York’s most disadvantaged communities with the poorest health, they have started holding keep-fit workshops for locals. Inside the hospital, they have built a marked-up, one-mile walkway for patients and doctors alike to walk daily during a break. (They have also started serving vegan meals.)
The issue for Bronx residents who aren’t hanging out in the hospital is that, despite having a wealth of parks, crime rates are high, and security is low. Just 15 percent of New York City’s surveillance cameras are located in the historically high-crime district (388 of the 2,626 cameras across the city).
That is the case for many Americans, laments Dr Mariell Jessup, chief scientific officer for the American Heart Association.
She hailed the new, more flexible physical activity guidelines that encourage Americans to fit movement into their life in any way possible (whether it’s two minutes, 10 or 60).
But she warns that it’s more complicated in some parts of the US.
‘The implications of “just move” has very many community implications,’ Jessup told DailyMail.com.
‘I think people can maybe sometimes but put off by the fact that they have to go to the gym for 30-40 minutes. We need people to be able to walk, but walk safely in safe spaces that are accessible.
‘Even if you could just guarantee that there’s a place for every American to take a nice walk after dinner – how great would that be?’