Adults who live cities but have direct contact with green spaces may have better cognitive function, especially in terms of visual attention, than urban residents who lack access to nature. This was the conclusion of a study led by ISGlobal, based on data from more than 1,500 people living in three European cities: Barcelona (Spain), Doetinchem (Netherlands) and Stoke-on-Trent (United Kingdom).
The study, which was published in Environmental Research, is part of PHENOTYPE (Positive health effects of the natural outdoor environment in typical populations in different regions in Europe), a European project coordinated by ISGlobal set up to study the link between exposure to natural outdoor environments—in both rural and urban settings—and human health and wellbeing.
Earlier research had shown that urban residents who lack access to natural environments can experience cognitive fatigue and are more likely to suffer from stress, making them more susceptible to mental health problems. Wilma Zijlema, ISGlobal researcher and first author of the study, explains that “there is no consistent evidence about the long-term health effects of green spaces, but they are thought to be beneficial for cognitive functions such as attention and memory. However, the underlying mechanisms and the reason for the association are unclear.”
In this study, the greater the distance separating participants’ residence from green spaces, the worse they performed on a cognitive test. No associations were found with physical activity, social interaction with neighbours, solitude, mental health, or concern about air or noise pollution.
ISGlobal researcher Jordi Júlvez, the study coordinator, notes that the findings “provide some indication that proximity to nature may benefit cognitive function in adults”. He goes on to say that more studies are necessary because the team “was unable to establish the underlying mechanisms that might explain this relationship”.
Zijlema WL, Triguero-Mas M, Smith G, Cirach M, Martinez D, Dadvand P, Gascon M, Jones M, Gidlow C, Hurst G, Masterson D, Ellis N, van den Berg M, Maas J, van Kamp I, van den Hazel P, Kruize H, Nieuwenhuijsen MJ, Julvez J. The relationship between natural outdoor environments and cognitive functioning and its mediators. Environ Res. 2017 May;155:268-275