New research shows that coastal populations are healthier than those inland

London(ANN) A new study from the European Centre has revealed that people living near the coast tend to have better health than those living inland.

Researchers from the Centre used data from the UK’s census to examine how health varied across the country, finding that people were more likely to have good health the closer they live to the sea. The analysis also showed that the link between living near the coast and good health was strongest in the most economically deprived communities.

The study used data from the 2001 census for England, which brought together responses from over 48 million people. Researchers looked at the proportion of people who reported their health as being “Good” (rather than “Fairly Good or “Not Good”) and then compared this with how close those respondents lived to the coast. They also took into account the way that age, sex and a range of social and economic factors (like education and income) vary across the country.

The results show that on average, populations living by the sea report rates of good health more than similar populations living inland. The authors were keen to point out that although this effect is relatively small, when applied to the whole population the impacts on public health could be substantial. Along with other studies the results of this work suggest that access to ‘good’ environments may have a role in reducing inequality in health between the wealthiest and poorest members of society.

Previous research has shown that the coastal environment may not only offer better opportunities for its inhabitants to be active, but also provide significant benefits in terms of stress reduction. Another recent study conducted by the Centre in collaboration with Natural England found that visits to the coast left people feeling calmer, more relaxed and more revitalised than visits to city parks or countryside. One reason those living in coastal communities may attain better physical health could be due to the stress relief offered by spending time near to the sea.

Lead author of the study, Dr Ben Wheeler said

“We know that people usually have a good time when they go to the beach, but there is strikingly little evidence of how spending time at the coast can affect health and wellbeing. By analysing data for the whole population, our research suggests that there is a positive effect, although this type of study cannot prove cause and effect. We need to carry out more sophisticated studies to try to unravel the reasons that may explain the relationship we’re seeing. If the evidence is there, it might help to provide governments with the guidance necessary to wisely and sustainably use our valuable coasts to help improve the health of the whole UK population”.

Dr Mathew White said

“While not everyone can live by the sea, some of the health promoting features of coastal environments could be transferable to other places. Any future initiatives will need to balance the potential benefits of coastal access against threats from extreme events, climate change impacts, and the unsustainable exploitation of coastal locations.”
This study used data from the UK’s census to examine how health varied across the country and has found that people are more likely to have good health the closer they live to the sea.

As part of the Blue Gym programme of research around aquatic environments (or blue space) and health and wellbeing, we examined the relationships between proximity to the coast and self-reported health. The coast has long been used as an environment for convalescence, holidays and physical activity, and in this study we set out to investigate whether simply living near to the coast could be associated with better population health and wellbeing.

We used 2001 Census data to carry out a small-area cross-sectional study. The 2001 Census asked every person to rate their general health status in the previous 12 months as ‘Good’, ‘Fairly Good’ or ‘Not Good’. We calculated the proportion of the population rating their health as ‘Good’ for Lower-layer Super Output Areas (LSOAs) across England. There are 32,482 LSOAs in England, and these areas are used to produce small area statistics on a wide variety of issues including health and socio-economic status.

Data derived from this Census question have frequently been used to study the distribution and determinants of poor health. However, in this study we considered ‘good’ health as a measure of positive health and wellbeing. Responses to this type of simple self-reported health status question have been shown to be strongly related to more sophisticated, subjective and objective measures of physical and mental health.

We used a Geographic Information System to calculate each LSOA’s proximity to the coast, and applied regression models to investigate the association between ‘good’ health rates and coastal proximity. Our analyses accounted for other factors including age, sex, socio-economic deprivation and green space, and were carried out separately for urban and rural areas.

Proximity to the coast was positively associated with good health, with a small, but significant increase in the percentage of people reporting good health among populations residing closer to the sea. We also found that, consistent with similar analyses of green space accessibility, the positive effects of coastal proximity may be greater amongst more socio-economically deprived communities. Whilst this type of study design cannot prove cause and effect, it is consistent with findings from our other studies. These findings indicate that the health and wellbeing effects of living near to, and spending time at, the coast warrant further investigation.

Many people live near the coast, and health promoting characteristics of coastal environments could be made more accessible, or transferred to other settings (e.g. through virtual environments). However, any policy initiatives designed to reap public health and wellbeing benefits from our coasts would need to balance these benefits against threats from extreme events, climate change impacts, and inappropriate coastal development.

This study is published in the journal Health & Place and is available here.

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