Young children growing up closer to nature have healthier lungs, study says

SHEFFIELD, United Kingdom — Children who spend their first 10 years living near parks or green spaces grow up to have better lung health, a new study finds. A team in Portugal found that green spaces boost respiration, reducing the risk of asthma and other breathing problems.

Lungs develop in five stages, with the first four occurring in the womb and the last during late childhood or a youngster’s early teenage years.

“Our research suggests the greener, the better. These improvements are modest at around two per cent. However, if we look at the whole population, making our neighborhoods greener could have a considerable impact,” says lead author Dr. Diogo Queiroz Almeida from the University of Porto in a media release.

“We looked at factors like physical activity and air pollution, but the link between lung function and moving closer to green space remained, even after we took these into account. It could also be that getting closer to nature reduces stress, which can improve physical health, or it might have a positive effect on children’s microbiome – the community of different bacteria that live in our bodies.”

“We found that living in greener neighborhoods as children grow up is more important for their breathing than living in a green area when they were born. This may be because babies spend much less time outdoors than children.”

‘We need to make our cities greener’

The study, published in the European Respiratory Journal, tracked 3,278 children living in and around Porto, Portugal. Researchers measured lung function through forced vital capacity (FVC) — the maximum amount of air a person can blow out after taking in their deepest possible breath.

The test indicates how well the lungs are working and helps doctors diagnose lung conditions such as asthma. Participants tended to have better results if their exposure to vegetation increased between birth and their 10th birthday.

Dr. Queiroz Almeida and the team add that the findings support the idea of families moving to greener areas and the need for more parks in towns and cities. Plants cool the “urban heat island” effect. They also combat pollution by reducing the formation of ozone. Shade provided by trees cuts energy demand as well, indirectly contributing to improved air quality.

“This research strengthens the evidence supporting the benefits of green spaces on respiratory health. Moving to greener areas may be a possible strategy to improve children’s lung function. However, house prices often dictate where families live, any many cannot afford to live in greener neighborhoods,” Dr. Queiroz Almeida continues.

“To reduce health inequalities, we need to make our cities greener, especially in areas where there is little or no green space. In particular, we need to involve children and their carers to make sure our parks and gardens suit their needs.”

What about living near the ocean?

The Portuguese team used satellite data and maps to assess the amount of vegetation in the home surroundings. Geographical information systems determined distance to the nearest park, public garden, or other green space at a child’s birth and when they were four, seven, and 10 years-old.

Dr. Queiroz Almeida explains that more people are living in urban areas and are lacking natural spaces, which can have a harmful effect on their health. Therefore, green programs in cities may improve respiratory health.

Despite the team’s assumption, the study did not find a connection between lung health and living closer to rivers or the ocean. Fewer than one percent of the children lived within 2,600 feet of “blue spaces” — so it’s unclear if there could be a link for shorter distances.

Asthma is one of the most common long-term medical conditions, with over five million children in the U.S. dealing with it, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. If left untreated, severe cases can be fatal. An estimated four million children around the world develop the condition each year because of road traffic pollution.

“We know that early childhood is a crucial time for lungs to grow and develop, and that a child’s environment and the air they breathe can have an impact on their lung health for the rest of their life,” says Professor Marielle Pijnenburg, head of the pediatric assembly of the European Respiratory Society, who did not take part in the study.

“This study suggests that making sure our children grow up close to parks, gardens and green spaces could help improve their lung health, although as the authors said the mechanisms for this are unknown and may be complex. This finding contributes to a growing number of studies that show health benefits of making our neighborhoods greener and healthier.”

Previous research has suggested living by forests, parks, and gardens improves children’s behavior, increases attention and working memory, and boosts school performance.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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