Is your neighborhood rich with parks, greenbelts, rain gardens, or other natural landscapes? If so, settle in for the long haul. Tiny structures that protect the DNA inside your cells are flourishing in an extended state of youth.
That’s the news from an interdisciplinary research group, which found that exposure to “greenspace” can lengthen telomeres and extend human life.
At least, that’s the working theory.
Telomeres guard the ends of chromosomes during cell division. Each telomere pays a small price with each division — and the older the organism, the thinner the telomere. Eventually, chromosomes cannot divide without destroying themselves, and the cell dies.
Factors such as work stress can degrade telomeres more rapidly. But thankfully, there’s a pretty easy way to counteract the effects.
Greener Life, Longer Life?
“We found that the more greenspace people had in their neighborhoods, the longer their telomeres were,” said Aaron Hipp, co-author of the study and a professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at North Carolina State University. “That was true regardless of race, economic status, whether they were drinkers or smokers, etc.”
The study defines greenspace broadly, including any “vegetated land cover” such as parks, gardens, or lawns. (Interestingly, earlier research found the the term was prone to interpretation.) In one definition, greenspaces seek to increase ecosystem services and biodiversity in urban areas.
The current study draws on data from a survey including over 7,000 Americans across demographics. And it joins a broad pool of research linking nature immersion to emotional and mental well-being.
But its authors also considered the effect of socioenvironmental stressors on longevity. Pollution, crime, and housing segregation take a toll on telomeres, they found.
And in fact, these factors likely overwhelm greenspace exposure alone.
In communities with limited income, education, employment, and housing opportunities, “the positive effect of the greenspace essentially disappeared,” said lead author Scott Ogletree, a former postdoctoral researcher at NC State’s Center for Geospatial Analytics. “In other words, while greenspace seems to help protect telomere length, the harm from other factors appears to offset that protection.”
What’s the upshot? A strong, resource-rich community with greenspace at its roots likely supports human life best.
“These findings point to the need to consider how greenspaces are distributed among neighborhoods in order to gain any benefits” from them, the study concluded.
Funny — that’s what Maas Verde thinks, too.
*Featured image: Chicago’s Maggie Daley Park; (photo/Creative Commons)