The 4-point blueprint for a healthy house
Posted May 9, 2016
When choosing where to live, most people think about the schools, the commute and what they can afford. But the blueprint for the perfect home should also take into account your family's health.
The location of your home can increase your risk for illness and disease. Its yard can affect your mental state; its proximity to stores and parks influence how well you eat and much you exercise. Even the architecture of a house can affect a family's overall well being since its design is a form of storytelling, said Justin Hollander, an associate professor of urban planning at Tufts University in Boston.
"A well-designed home has a series of spaces that form the chapters of a story. As you move through that place, the story unfolds, and the narrative is quite potent in grasping the experience in that space," Hollander said. "When we create environments that support and enforce storytelling, we have better health and well being."
Homes can also be toxic, as when foul water sickens an entire community, as in Flint, Michigan. A house that has poor ventilation and a build up of pollution and mold is said to have "sick-house syndrome" and can make its inhabitants sick, too. But just as a home can be sick, it can be healthy. Here are four ways to improve your health by improving your living space.
The more green our surroundings, the longer we live, says new research from the National Institutes of Health.
The study, published April 14 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that women who lived near abundant greenery and trees had a 12 percent lower death rate than women who had lower levels of vegetation.
“The finding of reduced mortality suggests that vegetation may be important to health in a broad range of ways,” said Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which funded the study of nearly 109,000 women.
As the number of plants and trees around the women’s home increased, their death rates fell. Those with the most greenery had a 41 percent lower death rate for kidney disease, 34 percent lower rate for respiratory disease and 13 percent lower rate for cancer. Researchers speculated that the benefits came from improved mental health and increased social engagement, as well as reduced pollution and increased physical activity.
If you’re short on greenery outside, your house can be healthier if you fill it with plants. Houseplants remove carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the air, and improve mental wellbeing.
Back away from the road
No matter how lush your landscape, if you live near a busy road, your health will be worse, a growing body of evidence says. Numerous studies have shown higher incidence of disease when people live by high-traffic areas because of the effects of noise and emissions.
“People who live 300 to 500 meters near a road bear a disproportionate burden of ill health effects,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Washington D.C.
It has been proven that living near a busy road can trigger asthma attacks in people who already have the condition, and there is “suggestive evidence” that regular exposure to emissions can cause asthma or other respiratory problems to develop, as well as cardiovascular disease and possibly some forms of cancer, he said.
This doesn't mean we should all abandon the city for the plains. "Surburb X" may have higher levels of pollution than "City Y," Billings said, noting that what matters most is who your neighbors are upwind.
"If your neighbors have an outdoor wood boiler, living downwind from someone like that can be a miserable existence,” he said. “It’s a bit of a research project to learn what air quality is going to be like in an area.”
The Lung Association makes it easier in one-third of the nation’s counties; it issues state-of-the-air report cards for 1,000 counties across the US.
Live on the edge
It sounds like sophisticated feng shui, but the design of a house can affect our psychological well being, said Tuft University’s Hollander, who, with Ann Sussman, wrote “Cognitive Architecture.”
A poorly designed house, one without clear lines and edges, can cause “subconscious feelings of confusion and lack of feeling settled,” Hollander said.
“We have a very strong predilection for having well-defined edges in both indoor and outdoor spaces,” he said. With them, we feel calm and quiet. We also like patterns and complexity, which help combat boredom, which can lead to stress. And we crave symmetry.
“We don’t actually understand why these principles affect our mental health; they are theory. But the ideas go back to classical times in architecture,” he said.
Hollander also stresses the importance of plants in house, which may be evidence of biophilia, Edward Wilson's hypothesis that there is an instinctive bond between humans and nature.
“Places that are rich with greenery are proven to generate higher mental-health well being. It doesn’t have to be a flowering tree; it can be a cactus. We connect on a subconscious level. It’s almost like we need it and can’t function well without it. It’s not just that we want a place that looks pretty," Hollander said.
Seek an oasis, not a desert
Speaking of cacti, stay away from the deserts.
Food deserts, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are places where fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find, but white bread and snack cakes are plentiful. First Lady Michelle Obama has pledged to eliminate them in the next five years, although some research suggests that obesity remains a problem even when access to healthful food is improved.
Another problem is the fitness desert, an area that lacks the bike trails, jogging paths and green spaces that encourage people to be active. One study has shown that people who live near a walking path or bike trail exercise 40 minutes more a week than people who don't have access to these amenities.
So to find the healthiest home, avoid the deserts, but you might also want to seek out the water. In his 2014 book "Blue Mind," marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols noted that people who live near the ocean are 5.2 percent happier than landlubbers.