Time with Nature May Help Combat Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease

Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s diseases are tough battles, but a new Harvard study shines a light on those looking to stay healthy and prevent severe cases of these diseases.

Key takeaways:
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    Harvard study finds natural environments may benefit those battling Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
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    Personal everyday health steps can help prevent Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
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    Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are the most common neurodegenerative diseases.

No cures are currently available for those living with Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s disease, but a new study in the United States may provide some keys to help prevent both diseases through time with nature.

New research led by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found living near green areas, national or state parks, and water may help protect adults from initial hospitalizations for Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s disease. The study was published in the JAMA journal on December 20, 2022.

The study included approximately 62 million Medicare beneficiaries 65 years and older in the United States. Their goal was to measure the natural environment relating to hospitalizations among older patients having Alzheimer’s and related dementias, or Parkinson’s disease.

Researchers calculated the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) through the U.S. Geological survey. They used patients' zip codes to find the level of greenness exposed to that individual.

The U.S. Geological Survey Protected Areas Database provided data on available area parks within a specific zip code of patients with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. Research for blue spaces near patients was obtained from the Joint Research Centre Global Surface Water data set.

As with any study, there were limitations. Only hospital records for fee-for-service beneficiaries were featured, and some hospitalizations may have been missed due to insurance plan changes, Also, only zip codes were used rather than complete street addresses, and most patients were in advanced stages of Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s.

Researchers ultimately concluded natural environments could protect against hospitalizations for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, or Parkinson’s disease.

The aging population is on the rise

Most places globally are heading toward an aging population. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates one in four Americans will be 65 or older, along with the number of 85-plus individuals tripling by 2060. According to the Census Bureau's statistics, this climb in the aging population could result in issues for the health care system and Social Security.

On a global scale, the World Health Organization believes the world’s elderly population will double from 12% to 22% between 2015 and 2050. Due to this rise, the WHO was asked by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly to lead the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing from 2021 to 2030.

Due to the various health needs of elderly folks, The UN Decade of Healthy Ageing aims to increase health opportunities for the elderly, deliver patient-centered care, and provide access to sufficient long-term care.

Slowing down Alzheimer's disease

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of Americans with the disease in 2022 is about 6.5 million. By 2050, an estimated 12.7 million people over 65 will have Alzheimer’s in the U.S.

A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study evaluated different risk factors, including cigarette smoking, low physical activity, alcohol use, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, depression, and hearing loss among adults over 45. They found limiting these risk factors can be beneficial in halting the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Lifestyle steps to prevent Alzheimer's:

  • Healthy eating featuring fruits, vegetables, and leaner meats versus processed meats
  • Remaining physically active
  • Quit smoking and limit alcohol use in moderation
  • Get regular check-ups to manage low blood sugar, hearing loss, and high blood pressure.

Parkinson’s disease in the U.S.

Behind Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease is the second-most common neurodegenerative disease. The Parkinson’s Foundation says one million people in the U.S. currently have the disease, with 90,000 individuals diagnosed with Parkinson’s every year.

Core symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include:

  • A tremor in hands, arms, legs, jaw, or head
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Slowed movement
  • Poor balance and coordination, causing potential falls

While Alzheimer’s patients are nearly 66% women, men are one-and-a-half times more likely to have Parkinson’s disease than women. Like Alzheimer’s disease, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the best way to combat Parkinson’s.

Both diseases are continuously being investigated for new treatments, and if more positive studies are released like the one from Harvard — more good news will only help treat the diseases with more efficiency.


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