Researchers in Denmark set out to determine whether growing up around greenery impacts long-term mental health. Using a database system that tracks mental health records, places of residence over time, family income, and family history of mental illness, the researchers pooled information on almost 1 million Danish residents born between 1985 and 2003. They then used historical satellite data to map the greenery around the residents' homes from birth through age 10.
After controlling for other risk factors, the study authors found that growing up near restorative green spaces such as parks and forests lowered kids' risk of developing 16 mental disorders as adults, including depression, anxiety, and alcoholism, compared to kids who didn't grow up around greenery.
The researchers determined that the risk for mental health problems decreased between 15 and 55 percent, depending on the type of disorder. And the more green space kids were exposed to before age 10, the better their long-term mental health, according to their findings published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).
It's not possible to say for sure whether growing up around greenery causes improved mental health, only that there's a correlation between the two. Other, smaller studies have also suggested a connection between green space and improved mental function. A study in Spain, for example, found that children going to schools surrounded by greenery did better on cognitive tests than kids who had little vegetation around their schools.
No one is sure why greenery seems to improve mental health. Green space may give kids more chance to exercise and socialize with others, which is good for their brains, the authors wrote. Vegetation can also filter out air pollution, which has been tied to mental health problems.
Of course, not everyone lives in a house with a yard, or has easy access to green spaces. But this study suggests that finding ways to get your kids outside – whether a jaunt to a park or a daytrip to a local farm – could make everyone healthier.
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