Forests, Health and Inequalities in Scotland: A Longitudinal Approach
Thomson, J., Pearce, J., Shortt, N. & Ward Thompson, C. (2017) Society for Longitudinal and Lifecourse Studies (SLLS) annual conference, University of Stirling, UK, 11 - 13 October 2017 [SLS]
Evidence suggests that forests provide opportunities for exercise, relaxation and enhanced quality of life. People who engage with forests by either visiting or having a view report better outcomes in general and mental health. Studies also suggest that the association between forests and health is stronger for those of lower socioeconomic position therefore forests may have a role in reducing health inequalities. The evidence supporting a positive relationship between forests and health has mainly been cross-sectional partly due to the lack of geocoded environmental data. This study addresses this research gap by investigating the influence of forests on health over a 20-year period for people living in Scotland.
The project investigates changes in the distribution of forests across deprived and affluent areas, whether people’s health improves when they live closer to forests and whether there is a cumulative protective effect of forests on mental health. Measures for all forests in Scotland, which distinguish between accessible and non-accessible forests, were created. These were linked to the Scottish Longitudinal Study (SLS), which provided data on 113,171 people living in Scotland for three time points: 1991, 2001 and 2011. Administrative records for the SLS members including the Prescribing Information System and Mental Health Inpatient and Outpatient data sets were also linked. Outcome measures included having a long term limiting illness and being prescribed anti-depressant or anxiolytic medication. Preliminary findings showed that between 2001 and 2011, forest cover increased only in the 25% least deprived areas of Scotland. Results also showed that people living 250m-1km from a forest were significantly more likely to have a long term limiting illness compared to those living closest (0-250m) to a forest. The early findings of this study suggest that the health benefits of forests in Scotland are likely to be unevenly distributed across the population.