Green spaces close health gap

Published: 6 November 2008

Researchers from the University of Glasgow have found that the health gap between the rich and poor is much lower in areas with the greenest environments

Researchers from the University of Glasgow have found that the health gap between the rich and poor is much lower in areas with the greenest environments.
The findings are published in this week’s Social Determinants of Health Special Issue of The Lancet. The research was led by Dr Richard Mitchell from the University’s Department of Public Health and Health Policy.

Studies have shown that exposure to ‘green space’ - such as parks, forests and playing fields - has an independent beneficial effect on health and health-related behaviours. The authors proposed that income-related inequality in health would be lower in populations with greater exposure to green space, since access to such areas can affect the pathways through which low socioeconomic position can lead to disease.

Dr Mitchell said: “Green spaces can provide what is called ‘restoration’ for people. We know that undertaking activities in these areas can reduce blood pressure and tackle some of the harmful ways our bodies respond to stress” .

“It is shown that people who take part in these sorts of activities in green spaces are generally healthier that those who don’t have the opportunity to do so.”

The researchers assessed the population of England who were younger than retirement age, almost 41 million, and obtained individual mortality records for 366348 people to establish whether the association between income deprivation, and death rates from all-causes, and from circulatory disease, lung cancer, and intentional self-harm, varied according to exposure to green space. Their study covered deaths in the period 2001-2005.

When looking at all deaths, the authors found that in the most green areas the health gap between the richest and poorest people was about half as big as that in the least green areas (incident rate ratio/IRR* = 1.93 in the least green, 1.43 in the most green).

When looking at deaths from circulatory disease, the difference in the health gap was even bigger (IRR = 2.19 in the least green areas, 1.54 in the most green). There was no effect for causes of death unlikely to be affected by green space, such as lung cancer and intentional self-harm.

In the report, the authors conclude: “The implications of this study are clear: environments that promote good health might be crucial in the fight to reduce health inequalities.”

Dr Mitchell added: “Not everyone has equal access to green spaces, but.when people do have access they tend to use them, regardless of what part of the social spectrum they are from. This has a direct impact on their health.

“Obviously, resources must still be ploughed into trying to narrow the inequality gap between rich and poor, and with that will come advances in the population’s general health.

“However, we would encourage the Government to consider carefully what their policy on green spaces is and to bear this research in mind when planning urban areas for the future.

“A final point to consider is that separate studies have shown that children whose parents take them to green spaces, like woodlands and parks, are more likely to replicate that behaviour with their own children, leading to the healthy lifestyle being passed from generation to generation.”

First published: 6 November 2008