It has already been shown that living in the countryside improves not only our physical but also our mental health. Living next to busy roads has been linked to an increase in the risk of developing dementia, while those out in the country have a lower risk of psychiatric illnesses such as anxiety disorders and schizophrenia.
But researchers have found that you don’t need to move out to the sticks to reap the benefits of outside living, as research published in Scientific Reports has found that city dwellers living near forests have improved mental health than those living in other urban environments, as their amygdala is much healthier.
“Research on brain plasticity supports the assumption that the environment can shape brain structure and function,” explained lead author Simone Kühn, in a statement. “That is why we are interested in the environmental conditions that may have positive effects on brain development.”
“Studies of people in the countryside have already shown that living close to nature is good for their mental health and well-being,” Kühn continued. The researchers, therefore, wanted to look at those who live in cities, and see if they could identify any similarities or differences in mental health and brain activity.
The study looked at 341 people living in cities next to different environments, from forest to urban green patches to wasteland, and assessed their mental health to see if there was any impact relating to these outdoor areas. For this, they got the participants to carry out memory and reasoning tests, as well as imaging the amygdala region of the brain, which is thought to be involved in stress processing.
They found that even when other variable factors, such as level of education or income bracket, were taken into account, those city dwellers who were fortunate enough to live close to forests were more likely to show improved mental health, an indicator of a healthy amygdala.
The researchers, therefore, suggest that these urban residents will be much better equipped to deal with stress, depression, and anxiety that they may face. Interestingly, they found that only people living near forests showed signs of “healthier” brains, and that the association did not hold for those living in close proximity to either urban green areas, water, or wasteland.
The researchers admit that they are unable to distinguish whether or not people living nearer to forests develop better mental health, or whether people who already have better mental health are more likely to move into regions close to lots of trees, but they do note that they think the former explanation is more likely. The researchers suggest that in the future, urban planners should take this sort of research into account.