gardenMost of us realize the benefits of a long walk in the park, or a weekend away by the lake. Fresh air, the sounds of birds, trees and grass and flowers help us relax in a way we never can in the city. Now research has shown that, at least for women, that not just taking a break, but actually living in the midst of nature is a pathway to a longer life.

A recent study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that women who live in homes surrounded by greenery have much lower mortality rates than women who live in ares with much less vegetation.

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, along with colleagues from Brigham and Women’s Hospital was designed to examine the possible association between “residential greenness and mortality.” The study followed 108,360 American women between 2000 and 2008. During the study, 8,604 of the women died. Taking into consideration factors such as age, race, smoking and socioeconomic status, the study concluded women who lived with the most greenery within the 250 meter area of their homes “had a 12% lower rate of all-cause-non-accidental mortality.”

The strongest correlations in the study were for respiratory and cancer mortality. Participants living in areas with the most vegetation had a 34 percent lower rate of respiratory deaths and a 13 percent lower rate of deaths from cancer. Based on these results, the researchers recommended “policies to increase vegetation may provide opportunities for physical activity, reduce harmful exposures, increase social engagement and improve mental health.”

Natural, green environments buffer the negative effects of air pollution, noise and high stress levels in a city environment. The study also looked at levels of depression, and determined that improved mental health explained nearly 30 percent of the benefit of living surrounded by greenery.

Researcher Peter James said:

We were surprised to observe such strong associations between increased exposure to greenness and lower mortality rates. We were even more surprised to find evidence that a large proportion of the benefit from high levels of vegetation seems to be connected with improved mental health.

The results of this study mirror earlier research showing that people living in cities experience higher rates of anxiety and depression. One such study found city dwellers exhibit distinct differences in activity in certain regions of the brain, compared with people who live outside cities. The amygdala, that region of the brain that regulates anxiety and fear, is more highly activated in people who live in urban areas.