Guest Op-Ed: Who Knew a Tree Can Make Us Not Only Healthier But Happier?

By Ann Kelleher

This past summer with so little predicted rainfall, a small group of my neighbors decided to water the young and newly planted Linden trees on our block. We each were assigned a few trees, a bucket was provided, water donated by an adjacent building and we went to work.

As I thought more and more of the value and necessity of trees, I did some research on the benefits of these beautiful and ever-changing additions to our neighborhood. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed with information regarding the importance of trees to our health and happiness.

Being healthy is something we all strive for, and, as we age, staying healthy is a major influence in how we go about our daily activities. We don’t want to fall, we are careful where we walk, we are always on the lookout for unsafe situations.

Who would think that a tree can factor into our lives as we strive to stay healthy?  As I learn about and appreciate the impact trees have on our lives, it’s worth sharing and hoping this information will make a positive difference in your life as well.

Climate change has been on the rise for decades, but increasingly we realize that we need to step up to the plate and do something, NOW.

As an example, carbon dioxide is building up in our atmosphere which contributes to climate change. A tree can absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen back into the air. It can also absorb pollutant gases and filter particulates out of the air by trapping them on their leaves and bark. To note, a tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year .This is important as the latest research shows particulate matter in the air contributes to strokes, heart attacks, lung diseases, asthma, and premature death, as well as a host of other illnesses according to the American Lung Association.

As we learn that skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, trees reduce UV-8 exposure by about 50%, thus providing protection for all. And, tree cover is an important asset, especially for children in school and community playgrounds where children spend hours outside.

A recent study from Finland suggests that children playing among forests and parklands rather than concrete and gravel yards help children to develop a stronger immune system. Preventive practices such as increasing the presence of trees and plants can decrease immune related diseases such as asthma, GI conditions, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and a myriad of other long- term health issues, according to this research.

 I find this study of interest as the United States has such a large and continuing presence of auto-immune diseases. Could spending more time outdoors, especially around green areas with trees have an impact on preventing such illnesses?

As tree canopies have been declining, and heat absorbing buildings and roads are increasing we are now experiencing hotter temperatures. Trees can actually cool the streets and the cities. Trees shade our homes and streets and help cool the air by releasing water vapors into the air through the leaves.

Trees surrounding our homes and businesses conserve energy by reducing air conditioning demands which in turn, reduce pollution emissions from our power plants. The shade from trees is helpful as it also stores evaporation from leaves and other plants, thus saving water.

Trees not only benefit our health but extend to our well- being and happiness. Research has shown that being around trees is good for our mental and social well-being. Trees help us feel less stressed and more restored. Why is this? Studies have shown that living in proximity to trees had better “amygdala integrity”- meaning, a brain structure better able to handle stressors, according to psychologist, Jill Suttie.

Trees can heal. Studies have shown that access to nature yields better cognitive functioning; children with ADHD show fewer symptoms and mental fatigue is reduced. Interestingly, patients who can see trees out of their windows are hospitalized fewer days than their counterparts.  

Another study confirms that people living with trees surrounding them as opposed to those surrounded by concrete, have less anxiety, stress and depression.

Neighborhoods with abundant trees have significantly fewer crimes because green spaces have a calming effect and encourage people to spend more time with their neighbors outdoors, increasing community trust. One study in the Chicago area showed that the more tree canopy in a neighborhood resulted in less crime.

Through the year, trees mark the seasons. While we may not all enjoy raking the leaves that are now falling, we all should be grateful that we do have leaves to rake and know that the new seasons ahead will provide many benefits to keeping us healthy and happy.

The trees on our street are still their summer green but we are awaiting the majestic Fall colors to appear. Unfortunately, one of my 3 trees did not survive. But I do have hope that a new tree will be planted and look forward to keeping it nurtured. 

 As poet and author Lucy Lacorm wrote, “He who plants a tree, plants a hope.”

 It is my hope that all of us do our part in advocating for more tree canopies, taking care of these trees and enjoying the benefits of better health and happiness.       

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