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U of L Study: Trees May Reduce Stress, Promote Heart Health

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A new study from the University of Louisville has found links between the amount of nature you’re surrounded with and your overall health. Findings indicate that people who live in more densely vegetated areas have lower levels of stress and better cardiovascular health.

WFPL spoke with one of the study’s authors, Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar.

Could you summarize the study and what you found?

In this study, we recruited 400 people from areas around Louisville and we estimated the levels of their stress by measuring metabolites of their stress hormones. We looked at the capacity of the blood vessels of these people to repair themselves and we also examined oxidative stress. And what we found is people who live in green spaces have better cardiovascular health independent of their socioeconomic status. And so the study tells us that living in green spaces could be conducive to your cardiovascular health.

Of course, because this was a cross-sectional study, we cannot speak to causation and further work is required.

How much research was out there on the relationship between nature and health and what motivated you to begin your own research?

There has been a lot of work, especially since the late 90’s and there has been some association, primarily from people in psychology looking at the beneficial effects of nature on stress. There have also been some reports that people who live in greener environments have experienced lower rates of mortality, but what really intrigued us and got us into this whole line of inquiry was a report that came out that we have the infestation of the ash borer beetles, and these ash borer beetles are actually killing a lot of ash trees in the northern United States. And the studies showed that as there were a loss of trees in different communities, rates of heart disease increased. And so where trees died in the community, people died as well. And given our strong interest in heart disease, we thought that if there is something to this, then it could be a new way of preventing or at least diminishing the risk of heart disease.

Naturalists have been describing the benefits of the great outdoors for generations. Henry David Thoreau, our own Wendell Berry; do you read authors like them and do you take guidance from the things they write about?

Of course Thoreau is a great inspiration, so is Wendell Barry. Also here in Louisville we have the legacy of [Frederick Law] Olmsted and his whole idea that greenness is essential to the well-being of urban communities, his great attempt to create these urban parks in Louisville as well as New York and Boston. But in some ways, I think we are working on the same legacy. He was concerned about green parks and spaces where people from their houses would go to these green parks and would find it sort of restoring and would find it relaxing from the everyday cares of life. But we want to develop that idea and say we don’t need to go to nature, we need to live in nature, and we have to be in a place where we are surrounded by nature.

So nature is not something out there that you go and visit on Sundays, it should be part of our everyday living and it should be around us all the time.

I just have to ask, is this exciting for you?

Of course it’s very exciting. So the key exciting element is, I’ve worked for a long time in trying to understand heart disease. So we have seen a decline in heart disease for the last 50 years and now the rate of decrease is diminished and it’s starting to increase so our children were the first generation since the industrial revolution who would not experience an increase in lifespan.

That’s because of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. So the exciting part is that, if being in nature and being around green spaces could even make a small contribution in diminishing the risk of heart disease, that’s very exciting. And then to be able to link this age-old relationship and to find this link between nature and health with people like Thoreau and Olmsted and [John] Muir, it’s certainly very exciting to be able to contribute to this larger dialogue.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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