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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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Netherlands Officials Want to Pay Residents to Bike to Work
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Thinking about relocating to the Netherlands? You might also want to bring a bike. Government officials are looking to compensate residents for helping solve their traffic congestion problem and they want businesses to pay residents to bike to work, as The Independent reports.

Owing to automobile logjams on roadways that keep drivers stuck in their cars and cost the economy billions of euros annually, Dutch deputy infrastructure minister Stientje van Veldhoven recently told media that she's endorsing a program that would pay employees 19 cents for every kilometer (0.6 miles) they bike to work.

That doesn't sound like very much, but perhaps citizens who need to trek several miles each way would appreciate the cumulative boost in their weekly paychecks. For employers, the benefit would be a healthier workforce that might take fewer sick days and reduce parking needs.

Veldhoven says she also plans on designing a program that would assist employers in supplying workers with bicycles. The goal is to have 200,000 people opting for manual transportation over cars. If the program proceeds, it might find a receptive population. The Netherlands is already home to 22.5 million bikes, more than the 17.1 million people living there. In Amsterdam, a quarter of residents bike to work.

There's no timeline for implementing the pay-to-bike plan, but early trial studies indicate that the expense might not have to be a long-term prospect. Study subjects continued to bike to work even after the financial rewards stopped.

[h/t The Independent]

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New Health-Monitoring Litter Box Could Save You a Trip to the Vet
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Unsure if your cat is sick or just acting aloof per usual? A “smart toilet” for your fur baby could help you decide whether a trip to the vet is really necessary.

Enter the Pet Care Monitor: More than a litter box, the receptacle is designed to analyze cat urine for health issues, The Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo reports. Created by the Japan-based Sharp Corporation—better known for consumer electronics such as TVs, mobile phones, and the world's first LCD calculator—the product will be available for purchase on the company’s website starting July 30 (although shipping limitations may apply).

Sensors embedded in the monitor can measure your cat’s weight and urine volume, as well as the frequency and duration of toilet trips. That information is then analyzed by an AI program that compares it to data gleaned from a joint study between Sharp Corp and Tottori University in Japan. If there are any red flags, a report will be sent directly to your smartphone via an application called Cocoro Pet. The monitor could be especially useful for keeping an eye on cats with a history of kidney and urinary tract problems.

If you have several cats, the company offers sensors to identify each pet, allowing separate data sets to be collected and analyzed. (Each smart litter box can record the data of up to three cats.)

The Pet Care Monitor costs about $225, and there’s an additional monthly fee of roughly $3 for the service. Sharp Corporation says it will continue developing health products for pets, and it has already created a leg sensor that can tell if a dog is nervous by measuring its heart and respiratory rates.

[h/t The Asahi Shimbun]

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