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Benefit of woodland and other natural environments for adolescents’ cognition and mental health

Abstract

Epidemiological studies have established positive associations of urban nature with cognitive development and mental health. However, why specifically these health benefits are received remains unclear, especially in adolescents. We used longitudinal data in a cohort of 3,568 adolescents aged 9 to 15 years at 31 schools across London, UK, to examine the associations between natural-environment types and adolescents’ cognitive development, mental health and overall well-being. We characterized natural-environment types in three tiers, where natural space was distinguished into green and blue space, and green space was further distinguished into woodland and grassland. We showed that, after adjusting for other confounding variables, higher daily exposure to woodland, but not grassland, was associated with higher scores for cognitive development and a lower risk of emotional and behavioural problems for adolescents. A similar but smaller effect was seen for green space, but not blue space, with higher scores for cognitive development. Our results suggest that urban planning decisions to optimize ecosystem benefits linked to cognitive development and mental health should carefully consider the type of natural environment included.

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Fig. 1: Geographic distribution of our study population and associated health variables for cognitive development, mental health and overall well-being.
Fig. 2: Effects and 95% CIs of natural-environment type DER with cognitive development, mental health and overall well-being across London.

Data availability

Study population and environmental exposure data around each adolescent’s residence and school are not publicly available for data protection issues. To request access to the data, contact M.B.T. Environmental data at the basis of our environmental exposure data are available at github.com/MikaelMaes/HumanExposure.git. The environmental data are based on publicly available sources. Sentinel-2 satellite data are available using Google Earth Engine at earthengine.google.com. Buildings, surface-water and tidal-water layers from the OS Open Map are available at ordnancesurvey.co.uk. LiDAR data from the Environment Agency are available at data.gov.uk. Air pollution estimates using the LAEI 2016 from GLA and Transport for London are available at data.london.gov.uk. The full model outputs that support the findings of this study are available in the Supplementary Information.

Code availability

The source code to compute our NDVI layer from satellite data using Google Earth Engine is available at earthengine.google.com. The code for processing raw LiDAR data, creating our environmental exposure variables and modelling our data is available at github.com/MikaelMaes/HumanExposure.git.

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Acknowledgements

We thank M. Blangiardo (Imperial College London) and R. Gibb (University College London) for feedback on the statistical analyses. This study is supported by funding of the London Natural Environment Research Council Doctoral Training Program (NE/L002485/1, M.J.A.M), the MRC Centre for Environment and Health (MR/L01341X/1, M.B.T.) based at Imperial College London and the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in the Health Impact of Environmental Hazards, based at King’s College London and Imperial College London, in partnership with Public Health England (PHE) (HPRU-2012-10141, M.B.T.). SCAMP is independent research funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Policy Research Program (PRP) (Secondary School Cohort Study of Mobile Phone Use and Neurocognitive and Behavioural Outcomes/091/0212) via the Research Initiative on Health and Mobile Telecommunications, a partnership between public funders and the mobile phone industry. An extension to SCAMP is funded by NIHR PRP. The funders of the study had no role in the design or conduct of the study or the reporting of the SCAMP study results. M.B.T. chair and the work in this paper are supported in part by a donation from Marit Mohn to Imperial College London to support Population Child Health. The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NIHR, DHSC, PHE or any other funder.

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M.J.A.M., K.E.J. and M.B.T. conceived the study and analysed the results. E.R.B. provided data on cognitive development. M.J.A.M. coded the models, performed the simulations and wrote the manuscript with substantial contributions from all the authors.

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Correspondence to Mikaël J. A. Maes, Kate E. Jones or Mireille B. Toledano.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review Information Nature Sustainability thanks Esmée Bijnens, Patrick Kinney and Margarita Triguero-Mas for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods 1 and 2, Figs. 1–5 and Tables 1–11.

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Maes, M.J.A., Pirani, M., Booth, E.R. et al. Benefit of woodland and other natural environments for adolescents’ cognition and mental health. Nat Sustain 4, 851–858 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00751-1

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