Living in the country has a cognitive advantage

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“Go outside and play.” “I need some fresh air.” “Let’s go for a walk.” The calming effect of sea breezes, mountain views, or simply clouds in a blue sky is all something we naturally turn towards to relieve the stress of our lives.

However, there is a science to the need to go outside and to encourage children to go outdoors. We feel the need to refresh and revive and we head out. And now we know that regular exposure to nature, such as parks, forests and other green areas, may help improve cognition and reduce depression, according to a recent Boston University and Harvard School of Public Health study. Researchers found that green space exposure could be an inexpensive way to boost the function and state of mind.
The findings suggest that exposure to green areas decreased depression and cognitive decline in adults and helped children with ADHD and other mental and behavioral problems.

We have long used the power of sunlight to prevent infections, ward off diseases and heal illnesses. There is a reason we innately enjoy soaking in the sun’s rays on a beautiful day: beneficial biomolecules activate when your body is exposed to light, positively impacting both mind and body. These healthy photo-byproducts act as anti-inflammatories, vasodilators, which help reduce blood pressure, and endorphins. They keep your body strong, and your mind focused.

The benefits of sunlight have been well-documented throughout history. Nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale observed during the Victorian era that sick patients in rooms with ample sunlight recovered more quickly than in rooms with no windows.

This laid the foundation for a modern approach to science and medicine. Vitamin D production is one of the most well-known health benefits activated by exposure to sunlight. Maintaining proper vitamin D levels protects against disease, optimizes physical performance, and improves mental health for our skeletal, cardiovascular, neurological,and immune systems.

But is there more than sunlight and vitamin D that benefit us from being in nature?

In adults, the rising prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias calls for novel prevention strategies. Cognitive function in middle age is associated with subsequent dementia and is considered a risk factor for declining physical functioning and mortality. Studies show being outside and even viewing soothing nature videos is associated with improved cognitive function in older adults

Outdoor activities, sunlight, and green spaces provide opportunities for physical activity, social engagement, and psychological restoration, which improve mental capacity and reduce the stress of noise, pollution, and conflicts. Being physically active decreases dementia risk, while poor social engagement increases dementia risk. The association between psychological restoration and dementia has been documented across population-based studies. In this research, the attention restoration theory states that people can recover from stress and mental fatigue and concentrate better after spending time in, or even looking at, green space.

Increasing evidence suggests that higher air pollution and noise exposure are associated with faster cognitive decline and higher dementia prevalence. Sitting inside, especially alone in a darkened room with only a TV or video game, also contributes to increased cognitive decline, depression and stress. Daily outdoor exposure counteracts this and should be in a park or country setting, if possible, rather than on a busy city street.

Opportunities to engage in playful outdoor activities are essential to people with dementia and may delay or prevent progression to more severe stages of dementia. They may also provide respite to care partners. People with dementia may feel overly protected and stifled, so going outside could put care partners at ease while creating space for people with dementia to explore and look at flowers, trees, clouds, and grass. Nature often reminds them of carefree childhood days and is calming, even if they cannot express this.

Studies also show that the cycles of nature, such as changing seasons, rain, snow and growing cycles, have a calming effect. Cognition comprises memory, attention, language, visuospatial and decision-making, all providing the ability to think and interact. Studies have looked at “attention restoration” as improving cognition and found that greenery and nature provide an effortless exposure to natural patterns that may relieve the stress of cognitive decline and the fatigue it creates and may even help prevent more rapid decline.

We all know from experience that children benefit from going outside, but why? In addition to providing space for running around and playing, being in nature has a positive biological and mental effect. In recent years, interest in the relationship between exposure to green spaces and children’s and adolescents’ mental health has risen. Studies suggest being outside decreases hyperactivity and inattention. There is a healthy association between being in or even viewing nature and the mental well-being in children and less depressive symptoms in adolescents and young adults.

Policymakers, urban and education planners, and mental healthcare workers should protect children’s and adolescents’ mental health in light of rapid global urbanization by providing sufficient exposure to green spaces.

We are fortunate to live in a natural setting. We all, especially our elderly and young, should have time outside each day, or at least view from a window or even a nature movie if unable to physically go outside. The child, adult and especially a dementia patient who only sees the view from one spot in a room all day with the hum of a video game or TV is in a negative environment mentally and physically. The prescription? Go outside, sit or take a walk, enjoy our beautiful area.