New Study: People Who Have This In Their Neighborhood Live Longer

Updated: May 15, 2024

Your immediate surroundings can uplift your mood, inspire exercise, and encourage social connections. Now new evidence suggests your environment can also influence how your DNA ages.

For people in the Northeast and Midwest who have experienced warmer temperatures early this winter, science may have just given you one more reason to get out and take advantage of those uncharacteristically tepid days.

A recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science of the Total Environment in September 2023 reveals an intriguing connection between neighborhood greenery—from sprawling parks to the trees shading your backyard—and the potential to extend your lifespan. The findings are a breath of fresh air for longevity research, illustrating how the natural world is intricately tied to your well-being…even down to the cellular level.

Telomeres and green space

Researchers from North Carolina State University (NC State) have zeroed in on tiny structures in your DNA known as telomeres. Think of telomeres like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces: They protect your chromosomes and play a critical role in how quickly you age.

Scott Ogletree, PhD, one of the study authors and former postdoctoral researcher at NC State’s center for geospatial analytics, points out in a press release that these telomeres are sensitive to life’s stresses, which can accelerate their wear and tear. This causes them to shorten as we age.

The researchers analyzed health and demographic data from 7,827 individuals via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to explore the link between living environment and these telomeres. They measured the greenery in each participant’s neighborhood and examined how these surroundings might correlate with the length of their telomeres. Lifestyle choices, health history, and broader environmental factors like air quality and historical neighborhood segregation were all considered in their analysis.

The researchers concluded that people residing in greener neighborhoods tended to have longer telomeres, suggesting that a bit more green in your surroundings could slow your journey down the path of aging.

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Health needs a holistic approach

It’s important to point out how the researchers also caution that while green space is beneficial, it doesn’t overshadow other environmental and social issues. They note the following as factors that research has shown can significantly impact health, too:

  • pollution
  • stress
  • social environment
  • socioeconomic disadvantage

These challenges can diminish the positive effects of trees and plants, meaning that simply adding more parks may not resolve all health issues and public health needs to be addressed systemically. As Aaron Hipp, PhD, co-author of the study and a professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at NC State said, “Green space is tremendously valuable for a community, but it is not enough to overcome systemic racism and the effects of economic segregation and environmental justice challenges on its own.”

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Making healthy aging a walk in the park

The link between green spaces and longer telomeres adds to the growing body of evidence that your environment directly influences your health and longevity.

Yet, it’s also a reminder that to reap the full benefits of these natural spaces, we need to address a wider range of environmental and social challenges. Embracing greenery such as keeping a garden or even raising houseplants is a step toward a healthier life—as the planet takes care of us humans, we need to protect it too.

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