Study: More trees in neighborhoods can improve health, lower medical costs

Study: More trees in neighborhoods can improve health, lower medical costs
New research shows that having more trees in a neighborhood can improve health and lower medical bill. File Photo by Kay Ingulli/Unsplash

It turns out that trees might be good medicine.

How so? New research shows that having lots of trees in your neighborhood could improve your health and lower your medical costs.

“It’s time to stop looking at trees simply as an amenity and start recognizing the essential services they provide,” said study author Ming Kuo, director of the Landscape and Human Health Lab the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.

Her team analyzed 13 years of data from Kaiser Permanente Northern California on 5 million people. The aim: to compare levels of tree cover in the five blocks around people’s homes with their medical care and costs.

After accounting for income and other factors, researchers found that people with the fewest trees in their neighborhood had higher levels of health problems and $374 more in medical costs per year than those in the greenest areas.

“For study participants living in the most barren surrounds, that $374 surtax translates to roughly $194 million annually in potentially avoidable medical care costs,” Kuo said in a university news release.

She noted that the relationship held for 13 years of costs, two measures of greenness at each of three distances from home and multiple categories of health care costs, such as emergency hospitalization.

“Our findings are robust,” Kuo said.

She noted that the study likely significantly underestimates the medical cost savings associated with trees.

“Those numbers just tell us about the difference between the greenest versus least green neighborhoods in our study,” Kuo said. “It doesn’t include the smaller, but still significant, cost differences in all the intermediate tiers of neighborhood greenness.” And, she added, it doesn’t include people in the neighborhoods studied who aren’t part of the Kaiser Permanente health network.

Study author Matthew Browning, an assistant professor of behavioral, social and health sciences at Clemson University in South Carolina, said the new research adds to a growing body of literature that has tied living in greener areas to beneficial short- and long-term health outcomes.

“The mechanisms linking nature and health are very diverse, but the benefits are believed to be in part because being in green space can decrease stress, promote healthy behaviors and improve air quality,” he said in the news release.

The findings appear in the May issue of the journal Environmental International.

More information

The National Recreation and Park Association has more on the benefits of green space.

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