July 17, 2012 at 3:07 PM ET
Living near the beach may come with an extra perk: better health.
A new study analyzed information from more than 48 million people in England and found that the nearer they lived to the coast, the more likely people were to report good health within the past year.
The results held even after the researchers took into account possible health factors such as age, sex, socioeconomic status, and whether they lived near parks or other green spaces.
The difference from living near the coast was relatively small. About 1 percent more of the people living within half a mile of the sea reported good health than did the people more than 30 miles from the sea.
But a small effect, when applied to an entire population, can have a substantial impact on public health, said study researcher Ben Wheeler of Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry in Exeter, England.
Living near the coast may be associated with better health because the seaside environment reduces stress, the researchers said. They pointed to another British study that found that people who took trips to the coast experienced more feelings of calmness and relaxation than those who visited urban parks or the countryside.
However, it's too soon to advise people to hit the beach to improve health, Wheeler said. The study only found an association, not a cause-effect link, and it's possible other factors could explain the results.
For instance, it could be that people who are wealthier, and therefore healthier, are more able to move to desired locations such as the coast, Wheeler said, a phenomenon known as the migrant effect.
But the study did find that the association between coastal living and better health was strongest for those living in the most deprived areas, which perhaps indicates that wealth cannot explain the results, Wheeler said.
Because the study looked at only England — an island country in which everyone lives within 72 miles of the coast — it's not clear whether the findings would apply to other populations.
Far from England, a health expert not involved in the study said that while the British research certainly doesn't prove that people's health and the place they live are linked, it's possible that "proximity to the seas … does something for our bodies."
Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine, said: "I know I find the smell of the ocean and the sound of the surf a wonderful tonic."
If future studies confirm the results, the next step would be to find out what it is about coastal environments that benefits health. Wheeler said it may then be possible to bring those benefits to people living in other areas, through virtual environments, for instance.
The study was published today (July 16) in the journal Health & Place.
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