Gardening can reduce dementia risk by up to 47%

“Gardening reconnects us to the cycles of Nature. These cycles are the rhythm of life itself.”

By Dorothy Dobbie
By Dorothy Dobbie

Gardening can lower blood pressure, increase brain activity and reduce stress and anxiety by providing a sense of control. Not only that, but just 2.5 hours of moderate exercise in the garden can help reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack by up to 30% for those over 60.

These are just a few of the benefits that have been discovered by the health industry, which is gradually coming to appreciate the critical health value of being exposed to nature. Not only that, but there is growing recognition that a garden or forest setting can promote healing.

In one study conducted in Uppsala Sweden, it was determined that simply looking at images of nature can have benefits. A choice of landscape, abstract art and no images was given to 160 post-operative heart patients. Those who gazed at the landscape required less medication, demonstrated lower stress levels and were released from hospital a day earlier than the others.

In a similar study, the Journal of Environmental Psychology reports that 112 stressed people were divided into two groups: The first were put into a windowless room and then relieved by a stroll on a city street. The second group had a view of some trees, followed by a stroll in a garden. The garden group demonstrated a sharp decrease in blood pressure and reported a positive feeling.

Spending time in an actual garden or forested environment can do even more good. One of those benefits is to increase levels of vitamin D intake which helps to reduce blood pressure, prevent osteoporosis and prevent the growth of cancers. Gardening itself can help to improve physical health by improving strength and dexterity, helping those with arthritis.

Perhaps even more surprising is that gardening can contribute to brain health reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. A case study involving 3,000 individuals, 16 year of age and up, showed that daily gardening reduced their risk of either condition by 36 per cent. Another study had even more startling results of a 47 per cent decrease. The bottom line is, though, that gardening improves strength, endurance, learning, problem solving and sensory awareness. It reduces depression and contributes to mental health.

Scientists have discovered at least one specific link to the reasons for some of these benefits: Mycobacterium vaccae, a soil borne bacterium that can be inhaled and was originally isolated in cow dung: hence the name vaccae from the Latin vacca for cow. M. vaccae stimulates the production serotonin and norepinephrine which induces feelings of happiness and reduced stress as well as having the ability to combat autoimmune conditions such as asthma, psoriasis and allergies. The bacterium has also been shown to increase cognitive ability when injected into mice.

Other health links include the fact that gardeners tend to eat more fruits and vegetables than the average consumer.

Going even further, in Japan, it has been demonstrated and is now recognized that being immersed in a forest environment can have marked beneficial effects on human beings. Shinrin yoku – literally, bathing in forests – is recognized by the fact that Japan has designated at least 40 forested spaces for the use of the population to decompress. Leisure time spent in a forest causes calming effects to the nervous system and increases levels of adiponectin, a hormone linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease.

Breathing in phytonicides or wood essential oils promotes a feeling of well-being. These oils contain volatile antimicrobial substances such as apinene and limonene. There may be other forces at work, as well, that are so far poorly understood.

In the United States, the National Institute of Health goes so far as to recommend 30 to 45 minutes of gardening three to five times a week as part of a good strategy to combat obesity. According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, gardening can benefit people who are recovering from physical illness by retraining their muscles and improving coordination and strength.

The bottom line is that, as one permaculture promoter, Angelo Eliades, says, “Gardening reconnects us to the cycles of Nature. These cycles are the rhythm of life itself.”

So this spring, before you resort to popping another pill for your aches, pains and mental distress, buy a plant or two and try getting into the garden, going for a walk or even a sit in the park or a nearby forest. You can grow a small garden on a balcony and you don’t have to limit yourself to flowers. Most vegetables respond well to being grown in containers.

If you live in a senior’s home, try speaking with the management to see if they might be willing to create a gardening space for the residents – many do.

And as a last resort, cover your walls with cheery landscapes and pictures of trees and forests. Just see how your mood improves.

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