Forests and Human Health June-18-2013

The role of forests for public health

Markus Lier, Co-ordinator
The Finnish Forest Research Institute

Societies and countries in Europe are undergoing rapid changes and the public faces different key challenges during the next decades, such as inequality, globalization, ageing, migration and urbanization, environmental break-down and climate change (WHO 2012).

Today’s major threats to public health are the global disease scenario of i) non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, obesity and diabetes, and ii) mental disorders (FAO 2006, WHO 2010). Part of the explanation for the epidemic of NCDs can be attributed to modern, stressful lifestyles and suboptimal living environments. Our biophysiological stress reactions are not adapted to the prevailing conditions of modern society, dominated by mental and psychosocial stress. Chronic stress results in an impaired immune system, cardiovascular dysfunction, and even functional and structural changes in various brain regions (McEwen 2007, McEwen 2012). Eventually these impairments of bodily functions result in varied NCD diagnoses, something that increases the burden on health care systems.

Investments in health promoting strategies and disease prevention have proven to be cost efficient alternatives for improving public health (Aldana 2001). Policies of both government and the private sector have the potential to make healthy living easier, for example by including health aspects in urban forestry management, and consequently contributing to good public health. This is particularly important to stress in the light of an increasingly urbanized world (Seto et al. 2012, Esbah et al. 2009), where especially mental disorders can be expected to increase (Peen et al. 2010, Krabbendam and Van Os 2005), and also in the light of aging populations. The proportion of people aged over 65 years within the total population is predicted to rise in EU27 by 2050 to 29% (EC 2008); due to the social structure of Europe’s societies it is expected that this age group will be living mostly in urban spaces.

Former research on green settings have documented direct, beneficial health effects to be derived from viewing or being in nature, often mediated by reduced stress reactions (Ward Thompson et al. 2012, Ulrich et al. 1991, van den Berg et al. 2010, Annerstedt 2011, Annerstedt et al. 2012, Bowler et al. 2010). In addition, access to green environments is recognized as increasing physical activity in a population as well as facilitating social cohesion (Giles-Corti et al. 2005, Kuo et al. 1998, Lamb et al. 2002). Exercise in nature has proven to be protective against stress and poor mental health to a larger extent than physical activity indoors (Mitchell 2012, Thompson Coon et al. 2011).

European forests contribute to human health and well-being in many ways which are connected to the ecosystem services of forests such as purification of water, being a traffic noise barrier and provision of non-wood goods such as berries, mushrooms and game (Parviainen et al. 2010). In addition, recreation and visits to forests and peri-urban forest environments contribute to stress recovery and increased physical activity, with positive effects on public health. Correspondingly, adverse health effects may result from inappropriate forest planning and management (e.g. forest fires, floods, droughts and landslides).

Forests also have the capability to provide new renewable bio-products, mitigate and adapt to climate change effects, and contribute to developing a greener economy (EC 2012). The potential of forests to provide novel bioactive components from forest derived materials to be used in medicine will create new opportunities for the European forest-based sector through the developing of new services and products to compensate for the predicted decreasing demand for present traditional forest products.

There is an obvious need to gain more knowledge and evidence of the opportunities and risks of forest ecosystems for public health and well-being and to develop a better perception of future sector developments. This is of major importance when addressing current and future public health challenges and supporting human well-being especially for vulnerable populations living in urban environments.


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