How Geography Affects Your Brain Health

Table of Contents:

  1. Live Where You’re Happiest, but Know the Consequences
  2. City vs. Rural Impacts on the Brain
  3. High Altitude vs. Sea Level Impacts on Brain Health
  4. Busy Roads and Brain Health
  5. Coastal Living and Brain Health
  6. Green Areas and the Country
  7. Above/Below the 37th Parallel
  8. Disadvantaged Neighborhoods
  9. Geography Affects the Brain, But Everyone Has a Fighting Chance

Where you live affects many areas of your life – what you eat, how you get around, what you do for entertainment, and your social circle. This seems like common knowledge, yet many people don’t recognize one of the most important areas it affects: brain health.

Studies have shown that certain environments can cause lower hippocampal volume and increase risks of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s(14). Understanding how your location impacts your health is one of the first steps in fighting for your brain health.

Live Where You’re Happiest, but Know the Consequences

For all people, the place where you grow up is not under your control. It’s the luck of the draw – you may end up in a neighborhood with access to high-quality food and clean air, or you might end up in a disadvantaged community surrounded by busy streets with poor nutritional options.

The good news is that you do have the choice to move as you enter adulthood. While your family and friends may affect your ultimate decision, you still have the option to move for better job opportunities, healthier environments, and better brain health.

Some people love city living, while others are happiest when surrounded by greenery. Your happy place will look different from the next person, but it is essential to know the advantages and disadvantages of where you live.

We often only consider the cost of living, job opportunities, entertainment, and social aspects when deciding where to live. The impacts of geography on your brain health should rank high on that list as well. Let’s compare a few scenarios when considering living conditions.

City vs. Rural Impacts on Brain Health

What do you picture when you think of a city? Realistically, it’s lots of traffic, honking cars, packed sidewalks, and other stressful scenarios. It’s no wonder that people living in cities show higher stress levels than those living in rural areas. (1)

In a study researching neural social stress processing in humans living in the city and urban areas, an association between current city living and increased amygdala activity was found. It was also noted that people with an urban upbringing had affected perigenual anterior cingulate cortexes, which is a critical region for regulating the amygdala. (1

The amygdalae are a pair of small, oval-shaped regions in the brain. They’re responsible for regulating emotion and encoding memories and are especially important for emotional memories (2). If this area shows increased activity, stress levels are also shown to be higher.

This additional stress negatively affects mental health, and thus people living in urban areas are more likely to have anxiety and mood disorders. For people born and raised in cities, schizophrenia is of higher incidence. These results were determined using MRI studies in three independent experiments (1).

High-Altitude vs. Sea Level Impacts on Brain Health

Altitude also plays a significant role in brain health. Have you ever gone on a high-altitude hike or gone on a road trip through a mountain range and noticed some changes in your brain performance? This is typically a result of hypoxia, a condition where you don’t get enough oxygen to the cells and tissues in your body. (3) Since air is less oxygen-rich at higher altitudes, you’re more likely to experience hypoxia there than at sea level.

A 2018 study looked at how cognition was affected by acute, subacute, and repeated exposures to high altitudes. In the study, hundreds of scientists, support staff, and technicians worked at a high altitude station – 5,050m (16,568 ft) – then slept at 2,900m (9,514 ft) for one week at a time. After this week, they spent a week at sea level to recover. They continued working in this schedule, with one week at high altitude and one at sea level. (4)

The study participants experienced changes in mental agility, reaction time, and ability to pay attention. The study found that workers began to acclimate to the altitude by the end of the week and saw a decline in their performance issues by the final day at high altitude. However, when they returned to the higher altitude after a week at sea level, the acclimatization-induced cognitive improvements did not carry over. They went through the same process of cognitive impairment again and again.

Apart from performance issues, people also report feeling mental health issues at high altitudes. Although people report an initial feeling of euphoria, this is usually followed by depression. Eventually, people report feeling irritable, apathetic, anxious, and quarrelsome – emotions stemming from a disruption in brain health. (5)

Busy Roads & Brain Health

In a study executed by researchers at the University of British Columbia, 678,000 adults in Vancouver’s metro area provided data for analysis. The researchers found that people living less than 150 meters from a highway or less than 50 meters from a major street have a higher risk of developing MS, Parkinson’s, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. (6)

 The researchers theorize that the link between the risk for these neurological disorders and busy streets is due to the higher levels of air pollution the busy street brings to its residents. This is one of the first times that we have confirmed a link between air pollution, traffic proximity, and brain health. (6)

Coastal Living & Brain Health

People often associate seaside living with fresh air and clear skies. A 2019 study found that this association is accurate, and the effects of this environment can positively affect its resident’s mental and brain health.

 Using survey data from almost 26,000 respondents, researchers from BlueHealth investigated the effects on seaside living and wellbeing in England. One in six English adults deal with mental health disorders, like depression and anxiety – a number that is exacerbated for people from poor backgrounds. The BlueHealth study found that people with access to the coastline had significantly reduced mental health issues. (7)

The study found that living near the coast could potentially act as a protective zone, leveling the playing field between low and high-income people. While adverse mental health disproportionately impacts low-income folks, having access to the coast may help alleviate these impacts. (7)

Considering that England is home to hugely populated cities, like London, which experience more issues with brain health, people can use this to their advantage. Everywhere in England is within 70 miles of the sea – meaning people can utilize the power of the coast to protect their brain health. (8)

Green Areas and the Country

In the study referenced above from the University of British Columbia, researchers also found that people living near green areas, like recreational areas and parks, experience protective effects against developing neurological disorders like dementia and MS. (6)

Reports have found that people living in the country and green spaces have a higher life expectancy, a lower infant mortality rate, and a lower rate of potential years lost due to common causes of premature death. (9)

Considering that higher levels of air pollution are linked to neurological disorders, this makes sense. The World Health Organization notes that urban ecosystems are responsible for 78% of carbon emissions. They also find that over 50% of the world’s population living in this soup of pollutants are adversely affected. (10)

Conversely, research has shown that exposure to green areas is critical to mental health outcomes – so much so that it is comparable to family history and parental age. Access to green areas encourages exercise, offers decreased air and noise pollution, improves immune function via exposure to beneficial microbiota, and provides spaces for socializing. (11

Above 37th Parallel

Getting a proper amount of sunlight also plays a part in overall brain health. According to an article from Harvard Medical School, “Except during the summer months, the skin makes little if any vitamin D from the sun at latitudes above 37 degrees north … or below 37 degrees south of the equator. People who live in these areas are at relatively greater risk for vitamin D deficiency.” (12)

Vitamin D is commonly associated with bone health, as the body requires it to absorb ingested calcium. Without it, the body will steal calcium from the bones, which increases the risk of osteoporosis. Apart from that, vitamin D is essential for protecting against MS, schizophrenia, and depression. (12)

The vitamin is active in many cells and tissues, controlling a large number of genes. This means it plays a part in protecting against cancer, autoimmune disease, and infection. One study showed blood low in vitamin D is associated with a doubled risk of death in general. (12) It’s safe to say that vitamin D is vital for brain health as well as physical health – and where you live may be affecting how much you can make on your own.

Disadvantaged Neighborhoods

In a UW-Madison study, 951 cognitively normal participants received MRIs to measure total brain and hippocampal volume. The hippocampus is the center of the system of emotions and memory in the brain. The study found that those living in highly disadvantaged neighborhoods had hippocampal areas with 4% lower volume than those from more advantaged communities. That 4% is equal to 4-7 additional years of brain aging. (13)

In many cases, choosing where you live is a luxury. Socioeconomic factors play a part in who is financially able to move away from cities and into areas with cleaner air. For many, living in disadvantaged neighborhoods is the only option. Disadvantaged neighborhoods are a clear determinant of health, and they also have clear connections to unemployment, poverty, housing quality, food variety, and education. (13)

Geography Affects the Brain, but Everyone Has a Fighting Chance

Our environments can make us more susceptible to neurological disorders and mental health issues, in addition to many other potential health problems. However, no one can control where they’re born or grow up. In many cases, even adults face extenuating circumstances that make it challenging to choose a healthier living environment.

Luckily, we all have a fighting chance. Although geography is important for health, it isn’t the only factor. We can augment our chances of good brain health by eating a proper diet, utilizing a high-quality supplement regimen, and following an exercise program. Take a look around – what impact does your environment have on your brain health? What steps can you take today to protect yourself?