Health Problems

Living close to urban green spaces is associated with decreased breast cancer risk

An increasing number of studies are reporting the health benefits of contact with urban green spaces. A new study from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) has conducted the first study of the relationship between exposure to green spaces and breast cancer. The study, which analysed data from more than 3,600 women in Spain, concluded that the risk of breast cancer is lower in women who live closer to urban green spaces like parks or gardens.

Previous research has identified an association between contact with green spaces and several health benefits, including better general and mental health and increased life expectancy. In the older population, contact with green spaces has recently been linked with slower cognitive decline. In children, exposure to greenness has been associated with improvements in attention capacity, behaviour, emotional development, and even beneficial structural changes in the brain. To date, few studies have focused on the relationship between exposure to natural green spaces and the risk of cancer, more specifically breast cancer, the most common malignant disease among women and the one that causes the most cancer deaths in women. The new study was published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health. The authors collected and analysed data from 1,738 patients with breast cancer and 1,900 participants with no history of the disease living in 10 Spanish provinces (Asturias, Barcelona, Cantabria, Girona, Guipuzcoa, Huelva, Leon, Madrid, Navarre and Valencia).

Data on lifetime residential history, socio-economic level, lifestyle factors and levels of physical activity were obtained during interviews with each of the participants. Information on proximity to urban green spaces or agricultural areas, air pollution levels, and population density was obtained by geo-coding the residential address of each participant.

First author Cristina O’Callaghan-Gordo explains, “We found a reduced risk of breast cancer among women living in closer to urban green spaces. By contrast, women living closer to agricultural areas had a higher risk. This findings suggest that the association between green space and a risk of breast cancer is dependent on land use.”

Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, the study coordinator, explains that the researchers “found a linear correlation between distance from green spaces and breast cancer risk. In other words, the risk of breast cancer in the population declines the closer their residence is to an urban green space. These findings highlight the importance of natural spaces for our health, and show why green spaces are an essential component of our urban environment, not just in the form of isolated areas, but as a connective network linking the whole urban area and benefiting all its inhabitants.”

“We still don’t know which characteristics of natural spaces are the most beneficial, nor do we understand the mechanisms underpinning these beneficial health impacts,” explains ISGlobal researcher Manolis Kogevinas, coordinator of the MCC-Spain project. “Other studies have shown that the mechanisms that might explain the health benefits of green spaces include higher levels of physical activity in the population and a reduction in air pollution, an environmental hazard clearly linked to the onset of cancer. However, we did not observe these associations. We believe that other mechanisms—including lower levels of stress among people living close to green spaces—could play a role, but more research is needed to confirm this hypothesis.”

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