Nature deficit disorder in children has become widely known, thanks to author Richard Louv and his popular books, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, The Nature Principle and Vitamin N. But research is showing that nature can have sweeping benefits for the elderly, too.
Several recent studies have concluded that seniors who spend time outdoors may experience less anxiety, depression and stress than those who do not. For example, in a paper titled Therapeutic Landscapes and Well-Being in Later Life: Impacts of Blue and Green Spaces for Older Adults that was published in the journal Health & Place in July 2015, graduate students at the University of Minnesota showed that seniors who spent ample time in blue and green outdoor areas, such as grassy parks or on the edge of koi ponds, enjoyed increased feelings of renewal, restoration and spiritual connectedness. Even relatively mundane experiences in such places, such as hearing a bee buzzing among flowers or the sound of water, had a tremendous impact on overall health.
But while the young and the elderly both benefit from being in nature, they may have very different health reasons for getting outside.
Five reasons for seniors to see the sun
In a study published in 2002, Japanese researchers posed a simple question: in a group of seniors who otherwise seem similar, why do some live longer than others? To find out, the researchers gathered the records of more than 3,000 Tokyo residents who were between the ages of 74 and 89 in 1992, charted how many of those seniors were alive five years later and then tried to explain the variations in longevity.
Two subsets of the participants jumped out: people who lived near parks and green spaces where they could walk and those who spent more time in sunlight. Both groups were far more likely to be alive after five years than those who did neither.
But how does nature help seniors cope with the specific health issues that they typically face? Here’s what science shows:
1. Improvement in short-term memory loss. Several studies show that walking in nature has memory-promoting effects that walks in other places don’t.
In one study, University of Michigan students were given a brief memory test and then divided into two groups. One took a walk around an arboretum, and the other took a walk down a city street. When the participants returned and repeated the memory test, those who had walked among trees did almost 20 percent better than they had the first time. The people who had taken in city sights instead did not consistently improve.
A similar study on depressed individuals found that walks in nature boosted working memory much more than walks in urban environments.
2. Reduction in inflammation. When inflammation flares up, it tends to be associated with a wide range of ills, including autoimmune disorders, inflammatory bowel disease and depression. Spending time in nature may be one way to help keep those ailments in check.
In one 2012 study, students who spent time in an evergreen forest in China had lower levels of inflammation than those who spent time in the city. In another, elderly patients who had been sent on a weeklong trip into the forest showed reduced signs of inflammation. There were some indications that the woodsy respite had a positive effect on those patients’ hypertension levels, as well.
3. Cancer prevention and an immune system charge. Preliminary studies have suggested that spending time in nature—in forests, in particular—may stimulate the production of anticancer proteins, and those escalations may last up to seven days.
Studies in Japan, where shinrin-yoku (or forest-bathing) is considered a form of preventative medicine, have also found that people living in areas with greater forest coverage have lower mortality rates from a wide variety of cancers. And in a 2010 review of research related to this effect, scientists noted, “all of these findings strongly suggest that forest environments have beneficial effects on human immune function.”
4. Enhanced relationships and diminished senses of isolation. Getting outdoors promotes social interaction, whether through meeting new people or spending time with friends and loved ones.
Natural environments, in particular, provide older adults with opportunities for nonweight-bearing physical activities and physiotherapies, such as swimming. Waterfront areas are comforting sites for spiritual connectedness and for escaping the strains of later life, such as boredom, isolation and loneliness. In addition, spending time in natural places increases one’s sense of purpose and accomplishment.
5. Lower overall risk of early death. Nearby green space seems to be especially important for the health of residents in urban environments, according to a Dutch study of 250,782 people.
In a follow-up investigation, the same research team found that a wide variety of diseases were less prevalent among people who lived in close proximity to green space. And a 2016 paper published in Environmental Health Perspectives found a similar connection: greater exposure to greenness was associated with a 12 percent lower mortality rate. The biggest improvements were related to a reduced risk of death from cancer, lung disease and kidney disease.
One thought that separates old from young
It’s clear that an increasing body of medical evidence suggests that regular contact with the natural world can help provide senior citizens with health, happiness and a longer life. So, while children and young adults may use green and blue spaces to alleviate attention deficit disorder, to de-stress and to unplug, seniors benefit by using nature to lessen memory loss, boost the immune system, be socially active and prolong life. In effect, not only do we need outdoor playgrounds for children, but sheltered benches for grandparents to watch them.
Personally, I like the idea expressed by author Edward Readicker-Henderson, who wrote in a 2012 article for National Geographic Traveler magazine that “my cane has traveled more miles than my hiking boots.”
More than anything, that’s what I want, because I can’t think of a better way to spend the years ahead.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,