THURSDAY, April 4, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- Getting back to nature may nurture your health, according to a new study that found U.S. counties with more forests and shrublands have lower Medicare costs.
The surprising conclusion comes from an analysis of health and environmental data from 3,086 of the 3,103 counties in the continental United States.
"We took the average of different types of land cover and the per capita Medicare spending in a county, and compared these two while controlling for several socioeconomic and demographic factors like age, sex, race, median household income, health care access and health behaviors," said study co-leader Douglas Becker. He is a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Each 1% of land that was covered in forest was associated with an average Medicare savings of $4.32 per person per year, the investigators found.
"If you multiply that by the number of Medicare fee-for-service users in a county, and by the average forest cover and by the number of counties in the U.S., it amounts to about $6 billion in reduced Medicare spending every year nationally," Becker said in a university news release.
Adding in shrublands boosted the estimated savings to $9 billion a year, according to the study published in the May issue of Urban Forestry & Urban Greening.
And the poorest counties seemed to benefit the most from increases in forests and shrubs, said Becker, who worked with Matt Browning, a professor of recreation, sport and tourism, on the study.
"At first, I was surprised by this," Becker said. "But then it occurred to me that low-income communities are getting the biggest bang for their buck because they probably have the most to gain."
The findings don't prove that having more trees and shrubs directly lowers health care costs, he said. But they do add to growing evidence linking green space -- in particular, forested areas -- to better health for folks nearby.
"Previous studies have looked at … health outcomes people think might be linked to nature: depression, cardiovascular disease, physical activity levels, even recovery from surgery," Becker noted.
For example, research has shown that surgery patients in hospital intensive care units recover faster and have fewer complications if they have a view of trees instead of parking lots.
Other studies have found that a walk in a forest may affect health-promoting hormone levels or cancer-fighting immune cells in the blood, the study authors noted.
The National Recreation and Park Association has more on the health benefits of green spaces.
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