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Living Near Green Spaces May Increase Women’s Lifespans

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It’s no secret that nature makes us feel good. From medieval visionary Hildegard von Bingen’s praise of viriditas, or greenness, to the more modern theory of biophilia, people have long celebrated the life-affirming power of plants. Now scientists say regular exposure to trees and other green spaces can actually help women live longer. Their research was published today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. 

As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, we’ve started to realize just how precious green spaces are. Previous studies have shown that spending time in nature can reduce stress and blood pressure and ease symptoms of depression. Some studies had suggested that living near vegetation could even reduce mortality, but these studies were limited and their results somewhat contradictory. 

To definitively test the mortality hypothesis, a team of researchers drew data from the Nurses’ Health Study, which began following more than 120,000 American nurses (all women) in 1976. The study participants filled out a questionnaire about their lives and health at enrollment, and then once again every two years. For this study, researchers focused on response data from 2000 to 2008. By 2000, the pool of living participants had shrunk to 108,630. By 2008, it was down to 100,026.

Each of the study participants supplied her home address. The researchers fed those addresses into a satellite mapping program, which could then estimate the amount of vegetation in a given woman’s neighborhood. They quantified the amount of green space, then measured it against the woman’s health—more specifically, how long she lived, and if and how she had died. 

The researchers were only concerned with mortality caused by illness (not, for example, car accidents or falls), so they created nine categories based on the most common illness-related causes of death: infectious and parasitic diseases; cancer; diabetes; neurodegenerative disease; coronary heart disease; stroke; respiratory disease; kidney disease; and all other causes. 

They found that women living in areas of higher vegetation were more likely to be white, younger than average, and married to highly educated men. To nobody’s surprise, the data showed that people of higher socioeconomic status (SES) tend to live in areas with more trees. 

But even after the researchers controlled for the life-extending effects of high SES, some clear trends emerged. Women living in the greenest areas were 12 percent less likely than other women to have died in the eight years of the study. They were 34 percent less likely to die of respiratory disease, and 13 percent less likely to die of cancer.

"We were surprised to observe such strong associations between increased exposure to greenness and lower mortality rates," study co-author Peter James said in a press statement. "We were even more surprised to find evidence that a large proportion of the benefit from high levels of vegetation seems to be connected with improved mental health."

The authors say these effects may be due in part to the opportunities for exercise and socialization offered by green spaces like parks, as well as lower exposure to air pollution. They emphasize how much we stand to gain by incorporating trees and other greenery into city planning.

“We know that planting vegetation can help the environment by reducing wastewater loads, sequestering carbon, and mitigating the effects of climate change. Our new findings suggest a potential co-benefitimproving healththat presents planners, landscape architects, and policy makers with an actionable tool to grow healthier places," James said. 

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Animals
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Live Smarter
Not Sure About Your Tap Water? Here's How to Test for Contaminants
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In the wake of Flint, Michigan's water crisis, you may have begun to wonder: Is my tap water safe? How would I know? To put your mind at ease—or just to satisfy your scientific curiosity—you can find out exactly what's in your municipal water pretty easily, as Popular Science reports. Depending on where you live, it might even be free.

A new water quality test called Tap Score, launched on Kickstarter in June 2017, helps you test for the most common household water contaminants for $120 per kit. You just need to take a few samples, mail them to the lab, and you'll get the results back in 10 days, telling you about lead levels, copper and cadmium content, arsenic, and other common hazardous materials that can make their way into water via pipes or wells. If you're mostly worried about lead, you can get a $40 test that only tells you about the lead and copper content of your water.

In New York State, a free lead-testing program will send you a test kit on request that allows you to send off samples of your water to a state-certified lab for processing, no purchase required. A few weeks later, you'll get a letter with the results, telling you what kind of lead levels were found in your water. This option is great if you live in New York, but if your state doesn't offer free testing (or only offers it to specific locations, like schools), there are other budget-friendly ways to test, too.

While mailing samples of your water off to a certified lab is the most accurate way to test your water, you can do it entirely at home with inexpensive strip tests that will only set you back $10 to $15. These tests aren't as sensitive as lab versions, and they don't test for as many contaminants, but they can tell you roughly whether you should be concerned about high levels of toxic metals like lead. The strip tests will only give you positive or negative readings, though, whereas the EPA and other official agencies test for the concentration of contaminants (the parts-per-billion) to determine the safety of a water source. If you're truly concerned with what's in your water, you should probably stick to sending your samples off to a professional, since you'll get a more detailed report of the results from a lab than from a colored strip.

In the future, there will likely be an even quicker way to test for lead and other metals—one that hooks up to your smartphone. Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old from Colorado, won the 2017 Young Scientist Challenge by inventing Tethys, a faster lead-testing device than what's currently on the market. With Tethys, instead of waiting for a lab, you can get results instantly. It's not commercially available yet, though, so for now, we'll have to stick with mail-away options.

[h/t Popular Science]

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