Parks and green urban spaces can protect against mental decline as people get older
Being surrounded by greenery was good for grey matter, as it was calming and quieter, according to the first study to look at the impact of parks on the mental health of pensioners.
Walking between busy urban environments and green spaces triggers changes in levels of excitement and engagement and reduces frustration.
The findings have important implications for architects, planners and health professionals with gardens and parks coming under pressure from austerity as we deal with an ageing population.
Dr Chris Neale, of the University of York's Stockholm Environment Institute, said: "There are concerns about mental well being as the global population becomes older and more urbanised.
"Urban green space has a role to play in contributing to a supportive city environment for older people through mediating the stress induced by built up settings."
It follows a Scottish study of younger people four years ago which found those who went into a park instead of more bustling areas felt went into a meditative state.
Dr Neale said: "We found older participants experienced beneficial effects of green space whilst walking between busy built urban environments and urban green space environments.
"Indeed, this work is the first to be published in a series of papers understanding the impact of green and urban spaces on brain activity in older adults.
Walking in green spaces triggers changes in levels of excitement and engagement
"In a time of austerity, when greens spaces are possibly under threat due to pressure on council funding, we have demonstrated these areas are important to people's health.
"We have an ageing population which places challenges on the NHS.
"As the cost of looking after an ageing population continues to rise, maintaining access to green space could be a relatively low cost option for improving mental wellbeing."
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The study is part of a larger project looking at mobility, mood and place and the role of the urban environment in promoting lifelong health and well being.
Common mental health disorders Wed, November 2, 2016
Common mental health disorders from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias.
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Stress – Feeling under mental or emotional pressure can lead to sleeping problems, a loss of appetite or difficulty concentrating
The aim was to understand how older people experience different urban environments using brain scans, self reported measures and interviews.
As part of the experiment, eight volunteers aged 65 and over from a wider sample of 95 wore an EEG (electroencephalogram) headset which recorded their brain activity as they walked.
The researchers also ran a video of the routes, asking the participants to describe 'snapshots' of how they felt. The volunteers were also interviewed before and after.
The study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found as well as preferring green space, it was beneficial to the volunteers' brain health by being calming and quieter.
Co author Dr Sara Tilley, of the University of Edinburgh, added: "To help ensure living longer is a positive experience for everyone, we need evidence based solutions to support lifelong health and well being.
"These findings – and others from the same project which show how important places are for our personal and cultural memories, and for enabling us to stay connected socially – have implications for the way we design for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities so going outdoors in younger years becomes a lifelong passion for getting out and about."
They mirror the findings of the 2013 study of younger adults from Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, which also found being surrounded by green reduced frustration and increased engagement.
Those researchers who also tracked brainwaves said parks affect the mind in a similar way to meditation.
The latest findings add to in a string of research on the benefits of spending time in nature
The latest findings add to in a string of research on the benefits of spending time in nature. A study from 2011 found a forest stroll could lower the stress hormone coristol by 12.4 percent versus strolling through an urban environment.
And the boost to brain health is not just limited to adults, with research showing green spaces also improve the mental development of young children.
A 2015 study of about 2,000 seven to 10 year old primary schoolchildren in Barcelona showed they improved memory and reduced inattentiveness in schools.
The findings may partly be explained by reduced exposure to traffic pollution, experts believe.
Other influences could include the psychological effect of having views of fields and trees rather than roads and buildings.