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Study Confirms What We Already Knew: Living Near Water Can Reduce Stress

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Beachfront property is considered the pinnacle of real estate for the views, the lifestyle, and, of course, the shoreline access. Everyone knows that being on the water makes us feel good, but now there's scientific proof: a new study confirms that living near a body of water improves wellbeing, even for city dwellers. The report was published in the journal Health & Place.

Scientific interest in so-called "blue" and "green" spaces is relatively recent, but cultural awareness of nature’s therapeutic power is quite old. Poets, Christian mystics, and nature-worshiping pagans alike all celebrated the power of the trees and tides. These days, we’re just getting good at quantifying it. 

Just a few weeks ago, for example, researchers published a study showing that living near lots of trees or other vegetation can actually extend a woman’s lifespan. The authors of that study cited three potential reasons green spaces might improve health: they provide inviting places to exercise, create opportunities to socialize, and they reduce stress.

The authors of the new paper believed that the same was true of blue spaces. They were especially interested in stress reduction, and whether blue and green spaces’ purported ability to calm would hold up in crowded city environments—specifically the capital city of Wellington, New Zealand. With nearly 500,000 citizens, the Wellington area is home to 10.6 percent of New Zealand’s entire population. 

The researchers pulled topographic information from national databases, mapping any forested areas, parks, and coastlines that would be visible to residents. They then looked to the 2011/12 New Zealand Health Survey (NZHS), which included questions on health, lifestyle, doctor visits, socioeconomic status, chronic medical issues, and mental wellbeing. Of the adults who took the survey, 442 were Wellington residents. 

The health and topographic data were then combined and analyzed. Some of the results were predictable, but others came as something of a surprise. "Increased views of blue space is significantly associated with lower levels of psychological distress," Michigan State University health geographer Amber L. Pearson said in a press statement. "However, we did not find that with green space."

Was it a money thing? After all, people in higher socioeconomic tiers tend to have better access to green and blue spaces, as well as medical care. But even after controlling for variables like sex, wealth, age, and local crime rates, their findings held true: being able to see the water was associated with better mental health for just about everyone. 

To ensure that their tests were accurate, the researchers decided to measure blue space visibility with a totally unrelated factor: toothlessness. If they found a significant  relationship between seeing water and missing teeth, they’d know something was wrong. But the relationship wasn’t there. 

Why would water help, but not trees? Pearson admits those particular results may have something to do with their study design. "It could be because the blue space was all natural, while the green space included human-made areas, such as sports fields and playgrounds, as well as natural areas such as native forests," Pearson said. "Perhaps if we only looked at native forests we might find something different."

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Health
New Test Can Differentiate Between Tick-borne Illnesses
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Time is of the essence in diagnosing and treating Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses. Fortunately, one new test may be able to help. A report on the test was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Ticks and the diseases they carry are on the rise. One 2016 study found deer ticks—the species that carries Lyme disease—in more than half of the counties in the United States.

The two most common tick-borne illnesses in the U.S. are Lyme disease and southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI). Although their initial symptoms can be the same, they’re caused by different pathogens; Lyme disease comes from infection with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. We don’t know what causes STARI.

"It is extremely important to be able to tell a patient they have Lyme disease as early as possible so they can be treated as quickly as possible," microbiologist and first author Claudia Molins of the CDC said in a statement. "Most Lyme disease infections are successfully treated with a two- to three-week course of oral antibiotics." Infections that aren't treated can lead to fevers, facial paralysis, heart palpitations, nerve pain, arthritis, short-term memory loss, and inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.

But to date, scientists have yet to create an accurate, consistent early test for Lyme disease, which means people must often wait until they’re very ill. And it’s hard to test for the STARI pathogen when we don’t know what it is.

One team of researchers led by experts at Colorado State University was determined to find a better way. They realized that, rather than looking for pathogens, they could look at the way a person’s body responded to the pathogens.

They analyzed blood samples from patients with both early-stage Lyme disease and STARI. Their results showed that while all patients’ immune systems had mounted a response, the nature of that response was different.

"We have found that all of these infections and diseases are associated with an inflammatory response, but the alteration of the immune response, and the metabolic profiles aren't all the same," senior author John Belisle of CSU said.

Two distinct profiles emerged. The team had found physical evidence, or biomarkers, for each illness: a way to tell one disease from another.

Belisle notes that there’s still plenty of work to do.

"The focus of our efforts is to develop a test that has a much greater sensitivity, and maintains that same level of specificity," Belisle said. "We don't want people to receive unnecessary treatment if they don't have Lyme disease, but we want to identify those who have the disease as quickly as possible."

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Google Can Warn You When Your Allergies Are About to Go Haywire
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How much allergy medication are you going to need today? Google can tell you. Well, it can give you a forecast, at least, as The Verge reports.

Google announced on August 16 that the search engine will now auto-populate search results for pollen and allergy information with allergy forecasts from The Weather Channel. The integration will include the most recent pollen index and allergy forecast data, showing a 5-day forecast detailing whether you’re likely to feel seasonal allergy symptoms throughout the week.

An animation shows a scroll of Google’s search results for pollen with allergy forecasts.
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If you have the Google app, you can set it to send push notifications when the pollen count is notably high that day, so you know to sequester yourself safely indoors. Hopefully you don't live in a city like Jackson, Mississippi, which in 2016 was named the worst city in the U.S. for allergy sufferers. There, your phone may be pinging every day.

While you can already find this information on sites like Pollen.com, having it show up immediately in search results saves you a few extra clicks, and frankly, it’s far more readable than most allergy and weather forecast sites.

Too bad a search engine can't cure our sneezes and watery eyes, though. Time to stock up on Kleenex, get a jumbo bottle of allergy meds, and maybe buy yourself a robot vacuum.

[h/t The Verge]

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