A new study from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), a center supported by the La Caixa Foundation, provides further scientific evidence of the health benefits of well thought-out urban planning. The study suggests that the built environment, green spaces and air pollution can impair children’s cognitive and motor functions.
According to numerous studies, the urban environment can influence neurological development from conception, for example through exposure to air pollution. However, previous research has not assessed the effects of multiple exposure groups simultaneously using an early life exposome approach.
A team from the European HELIX project, coordinated by ISGlobal, set out to analyze the effects of 13 urban exposures on the cognitive and motor functions of nearly 5,500 children in seven European urban areas – Bradford, UK; Nancy and Poitiers, France; Gipuzkoa, Sabadell and Valencia, Spain; and Heraklion, Greece – using data from birth cohorts Born in Bradford, EDEN, INMA Environment and Childhood Project and RHEA, respectively.
The new study, published in Environment International, analyzed exposure in urban living areas from pregnancy to the age of three. Factors analyzed include the built environment (building density, proximity to public transport, abundance of amenities, etc.), natural spaces and air pollution by nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5). Cognitive function (verbal and non-verbal skills) and motor skills (fine and gross motor skills) were assessed using validated tests at four to five years of age.
Results showed that exposure to some design factors of built environments, natural spaces, and air pollution were associated with cognitive and motor functioning in children as young as five years old. Specifically, higher exposure to greenery within 300 meters of the home during pregnancy was associated with higher verbal skills. In contrast, greater connectivity (density of road crossings) and diverse land use during pregnancy were associated with lower verbal skills.
“To our knowledge, this is the first study to show the negative impact of some factors in the built environment on children’s verbal skills,” commented ISGlobal researcher Anne-Claire Binter, lead author of the study. “Previous studies have associated land-use diversity with positive health effects, so further studies are needed to interpret these results,” she adds.
As for air pollution, in line with previous research, higher exposure to particulate matter during pregnancy was associated with lower scores on fine motor tests. “During pregnancy, the placenta and the blood-brain barrier that protects the brain and spinal cord are still immature defense systems and only partially protect the fetus from environmental stress,” explains Binter.
The study also confirmed the mediating effect of air pollution on the association between green spaces and verbal skills. In other words, “natural environments could have a positive impact on cognitive development by reducing the harmful effects of air pollution,” explained study coordinator Mònica Guxens, director of the INMA project.
“Beyond urban green spaces, whose health benefits have been demonstrated by previous research, our results suggest that other urban features should be considered when investigating environmental pressures that can impair children’s cognitive functioning,” Guxens noted. “The health of the population – especially the most vulnerable groups such as children – should form the basis of urban planning,” she concluded.
Relation: Binter AC, Bernard JY, Mon-Williams M, et al. Urban environment and cognitive and motor function in children from four European birth cohorts. environment int. 2021;158:106933. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2021.106933
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