Green Space and Cognitive Development
An article in Pacific Standard this week reported on a study finding that green space at school, at home and on the commute is associated with greater working memory and attentiveness in school-age children. This finding is similar to one from last October showing that the amount of greenery around a school relates to higher math and English test scores. In both studies, detailed maps were used to assess green space—neither study looked at whether children actually get outdoors into the greenery. In the more recent study, researchers also considered the contribution of traffic pollution (elemental carbon) to cognitive development and found that reduced pollution accounted for 20 to 65% of the improvement in cognition. That means that 35 to 80% of the improvement was associated with some effect of being in green space other than the traffic pollution. The specific aspects of green space that drive this association are not reported: Is it more open space and fewer man-made structures? Being close to living plants and their associated fungi? The quality of light around greenery? Reduced noise near greenery compared to amidst more concrete, brick and other building materials? Some research begins to address these questions: A 2008 study found that “walking in nature or viewing pictures of nature can improve directed-attention abilities”, indicating that viewing nature through windows, in a magazine or on a screen may be as good as being out in it, at least for improving attention. A 2012 study found that individuals with depression showed memory improvements after a walk in nature but not after a walk in city streets. A 2009 study found that traffic noise in a classroom impaired reading speed and basic math. What’s the bottom line for parents, teachers, and children? Even if we don’t know the mechanisms behind the association between exposure to green space and improved memory and attention, exposing our children to more nature scenes at home and at school may enhance their cognitive development and function.
Sugar Intake and Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is the autoimmune disease that used to be called juvenile diabetes. A family history of type 1 diabetes is a recognized risk, but obesity does not play a big part in developing the disease, unlike with type 2 diabetes. Most older studies have also not found sugar to be associated with type 1 diabetes development. A study in Diabetologia published this month looked at the connection between sugar intake and progression of the disease in children. Sugars investigated included fructose and sucrose, total carbohydrates and sugars, and major dietary sources of sugars, such as sugar-sweetened beverages and juice. The researchers found that increased consumption of sugars may exacerbate the development of type 1 diabetes in children who had already developed autoimmunity. Sugar intake was not associated with the development of type 1-related autoimmunity. Sugar-sweetened beverages were especially problematic for children with a higher genetic risk of the disease. This is yet another reason to limit children’s sugar consumption, and not only for overweight children.
FDA Bans Trans Fats in Food
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced that it will remove artificial trans fat from the food supply within three years. In 2006 the FDA began requiring that trans fat be listed on the Nutrition Facts labels on foods, and in 2013 the agency made a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils were no longer “generally recognized as safe”, or GRAS. The GRAS designation at the FDA goes back decades and has allowed ingredients and additives in food that are not thoroughly tested for safety and efficacy if there is general consensus among experts that the substance is safe. Partially hydrogenated oils, the major dietary source of industrially produced trans fat in processed food, had been considered GRAS, but mounting evidence linking trans fat to increased risk of coronary heart disease caused the FDA to remove that designation. Coronary heart disease is the number one cause of death in both men and women. Until the ban goes into effect, consumers can avoid foods that list trans fat on nutrition labels or partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list. Processed foods likely to contain partially hydrogenated oil include crackers, cookies, cakes, pie crusts and other baked goods; snack foods such as microwave popcorn; stick margarines and most shortening; coffee creamers; ready-to-use frostings; and refrigerated dough products such as biscuits and cinnamon rolls.
This post is part of a regular series that summarizes and highlights recent Your Health items and trends. Readers can follow CHE’s Your Health news feed or subscribe via RSS. While individual actions to safeguard or improve health are important, we cannot individually address broad issues regarding pollutants, food supply, access to health care, poverty, climate change, infectious diseases and other issues that impact the health of individuals and communities. Join CHE to strengthen the science dialogue on environmental factors impacting human health and to facilitate collaborative, prevention-oriented efforts to address environmental health concerns. Bringing attention to specific resources and findings does not mean CHE endorses or validates them. We highlight the emerging science and its implications for Your Health, knowing that thinking will continue to evolve as new studies are published.