Our Aging Cities, Our Aging Bodies

In our Open Voices blog we share insight from leaders in our communities who are advancing what it means to have sacred, open green spaces in our cities. This month we examine the health needs of older Americans and the array of healthy experiences found in Nature Sacred spaces.

Cultures over the past thousands of documented years (if not more!) incorporated gardens and trees in their origin stories or traveled to natural springs in search of health and healing.  Most of us deeply feel what some theorists call the theory of biophilia, the claim that humans have an innate affinity and need for contact with other living beings. If you are reading this, it is probably not news to you that green spaces in our urban neighborhoods are beneficial in many ways! An abundance of research over the past forty years provides evidence that spending time in metro green spaces can improve blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormone indicators (cortisol), white-blood cell count, attention, memory, mood, and self-esteem. For example, when humans garden our cognitive abilities improve, we experience pleasing sensory and aesthetic experiences and improved neural connections contributing to socio-emotional emotions. 1

The question is no longer ‘Do I benefit from nearby nature’? and now is more like: ‘What is happening in our bodies, minds and interactions? What are other people experiencing? If this is something innate in us, are we missing out on life by living in cities?’

Outdoor public seating under large tress in San Jose.
Outdoor public seating under large tress in San Jose.

In addition to mental and physical health, research findings do indicate there is a correlation between the presence of public, green spaces and informal social interactions. The more trees and vegetation around us, the more likely we’ll use common spaces and exhibit stronger neighborhood social ties. These improvements are common across most ages, ethnicities, locations and gender. 2 3 Even in an assisted living facility, residents in their early 80s participating in a 5-week indoor gardening health program improved physically and socially (compared to a 2-week program). 4

For those whose mobility is challenged due to age or health, being able to interact with other living beings (humans, companion animals, trees) can play a large role in everyday health. Communities designed and supportive of all residents benefits the health of everyone. And, the importance of social interaction in fostering elder health can’t be overstated. 5 Declining physical health and feelings of loneliness are common as we age. In the United States, significantly more than half of people over 85 are women. For women 65 and older, compared to men in their same age bracket, older women are less likely to go outside, tend to have less savings and are more likely to be widowed. 6 7

Ohlone Park, Berkeley California.
Ohlone Park, Berkeley California.
  • Among the elderly, decreased loneliness is correlated with lower mortality rates, depression, and cognitive impairment. 8 9
  • Strong community networks strengthen our elder members’ personal control and self-esteem and buffer the effects of stress, poor health, and feelings of isolation. 10
  • Older adults who have more exposure to green common spaces report a stronger sense of unity among neighbors and  a stronger sense of belonging. 11
  • Women aged 55-84 living in Texas were more likely to be physically active if their nearby environment (a boundary of a half-mile street distance from home) was greener. 12  In a similar study, older women who perceived that walking trails, parks and other amenities were located within a 20 minute walking distance from their homes walked longer distances compared to women who did not perceive their neighborhood as favorably. 13
  • Elderly women in a Japanese healthcare facility entered a physiologically relaxed state (heart rate variability) when in a specially designed rooftop forest. 14 Viewing a natural landscape through the windows of a retirement center also correlated with lower blood pressure and heart rate in a study of elderly Canadian women. 15

Continued physical and mental activity and sustained social connections are vital conditions for maintaining a healthy life. Nearby green space can foster many of these conditions but for many urban residents, nearby nature opportunities are lacking.  Do projects in your city include residents in community planning? Is development in your city relevant and stable, and does it enhance intergenerational well-being among residents?

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1 Infantino, M. 2004. Gardening: A Strategy for Health Promotion in Older Women. Journal of New York State Nurses Association 35, 2: 10-7.
2 Kuo, F. and Sullivan, W. 1998. Fertile ground for community: Inner-city neighborhood common spaces. American Journal of Community Psychology 26: 823-851.
3 Burls, A. 2007. People and green spaces: promoting public health and mental well-being through ecotherapy. Journal of Public Mental Health 6: 24-39.
4 Brown, V.M., A.C. Allen, M. Dwozan, I. Mercer, and K. Warren. 2004. Indoor gardening older adults: Effects on socialization, activities of daily living, and loneliness. Journal of Gerontological Nursing 30, 10: 34-42.
5 Data from the 2010 National Survey of Residential Care Facilities. The National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief No. 91.
6 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2013. A Profile of Older Americans: 2013. U.S. DHHS, 1-15.
7 Weuve, J., J.H. Kang, J.A.E. Manson, M. Breteler, J.H. Ware, and F. Grodstein. 2004. Physical Activity, Including Walking, and Cognitive Function in Older Women. The Journal of the American Medical Association 292, 12: 1454.
8 Krause, N. 1987. Life stress, social support, and self-esteem in an elderly population. Psychology and  Aging 2: 349-356.
9 Kweon, B.S., W.C. Sullivan, and R. Angel. 1998. Green common spaces and the social integration of inner-city older adults. Environment and Behavior 30, 6: 832-858.
10 King, W., J. Brach, S. Belle, R. Killingsworth, M. Fnton and A. Kriska. 2003. The relationship between convenience of destinations and walking levels in older women. American Journal of Health Promotion 28, 1: 74-82.
11 Kemperman, A., and H. Timmermans. 2014. Green spaces in the direct living environment and social contacts of the aging population. Landscape and Urban Planning 129: 44-54.
12 Shin, W.H., B.S. Kweon, and W.J. Shin. 2011. The Distance Effects of Environmental Variables on Older African American Women’s Physical Activity in Texas. Landscape and Urban Planning 103: 217-229.
13 Lees, E., C.T. Wendell, J.T. Hepworth, K. Feliz, A. Cassells, and J.N. Tobin. 2007. Environmental Changes to Increase Physical Activity: Perceptions of Older Urban Ethnic-minority Women. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity 15, 4: 425-38.
14 Matsunaga, K., B. Park, H. Kobayashi, and Y. Miyazaki. 2011. Physiologically Relaxing Effect of a Hospital Rooftop Forest on Older Women Requiring Care. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 59,11: 2162-2163.
15 Tang, J.W., and R.D. Brown. 2006. The Effect of Viewing a Landscape on Physiological Health of Elderly Women. Journal of Housing for the Elderly 19, 3-4: 187-202.

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