biodiversity Durango Herald Environment Public Health

Benefit from the Natural World

Benefit from the Natural World

© Richard Grossman MD, 2009

There is a fountain of youth, and it may be very close to you. A remarkable new study shows a way to prolong life.

People who live near green space live longer than those who live surrounded by treeless city. Research from England describes the value of green space. This careful study controlled for potential confounding factors. The researchers looked at the death rates of over 40 million people during a five-year period and found that people were less likely to die if they lived near green space.

The authors hypothesize that green space, defined as “open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation,” promotes health by encouraging exercise. Indeed, it is estimated that every hour of physical exercise prolongs a person’s life by two hours. This study’s authors also theorize that green space is psychologically and physiologically restorative. Being in nature can promote relaxation and lower a person’s blood pressure. Presumably, it is the tranquil vistas, pleasant odors and the sounds of nature that are pleasing and beneficial.

Of these two factors, the researchers felt that exercise is valuable, but relaxation is even more important. There is a possible third factor that they did not mention, however.

A couple of years ago a news release puzzled me. It stated that people in some of Colorado’s highest counties were the longest lived in the whole nation. At first, this report didn’t make sense, since life is arduous in the high, cold mountains. Then I learned the importance of air quality; put simply, bad air kills. Very fine particles in the air, such as from diesel exhaust, are serious contributors to heart and lung disease. Presumably people who live at altitude breathe purer air and are poisoned by fewer of these tiny particulates. This may be why they approach Methuselah in longevity.

It turns out that plant life helps filter out air impurities. Particles settle on plant surfaces, and then are washed to the ground by rain. In addition, vegetation absorbs some impurities and makes them harmless. This may be a third way that green space helps people live longer. Promoting exercise, promoting relaxation and purifying air are all important rôles for the natural world, even though they are poorly recognized by our capitalistic system.

Business and politics attach little value to undeveloped natural resources. The above study illustrates how valuable land with natural vegetation really is. There are many other examples of how the natural world benefits mankind.

New York City learned the value of environmental resources when its water quality deteriorated. Its water comes from the Catskill Mountains, where natural processes had always purified the water. With the growing human population, the streams and lakes became contaminated by agricultural runoff and sewage. The City considered building a huge water purification system, but found that it was much less expensive to rehabilitate the watershed. By purchasing more land and cleaning up the pollution they regained pure water, saved money, and avoided the continuing cost of running a decontamination system.

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are appreciated for their sweet product. The value of the honey produced in the USA is about $150 million each year. We benefit from bees in another way that is even more important. These little insects are invaluable for pollinating crops. The worth of this service has been estimated at $15 billion annually—one hundred times as much as honey production! We are starting to realize how truly helpful bees are now that they are disappearing for mysterious reasons. The impact on agriculture—and on natural vegetation—will be tremendous if this loss continues.

Closer to home, beavers (Castor canadensis) are seldom seen, but their dams and lodges are common. They almost became extinct in the American west during the 19th century when they were trapped for their fur. Without beaver ponds to hold water, stream beds washed out, resulting in floods and droughts. The dams and ponds create fertile bottom land and help purify water by filtering out impurities. Fortunately, beavers were reintroduced starting in the 1950s, helping to provide pure water for communities downstream.

It is difficult to assign a value to natural resources. In the past green space was considered pleasant, but optional. Our perception of its value may increase now that we know that it promotes health and longevity.

Preserving and restoring as much as possible of the natural world, especially green space, has benefits that may not be immediately evident. We should resist the urge to destroy natural resources before understanding their true value.

This article first appeared in the Durango Herald 1-2009

The article above may be copied or published but must remain intact, with attribution to the author. I also request that the words “First published in the Durango Herald” accompany any publication. For more information, please write the author at:

By Richard

I am a retired obstetrician-gynecologist who has been fortunate to live and work in the wonderful community of Durango, Colorado for 40 years.

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