A group of researchers in the UK decided to use geospatial technology to plot the distribution and determinants of ‘good health’ and wellbeing
Traditionally, geospatial technology has been used to track, map, predict and control diseases. Undoubtedly, the technology has played a key role in understanding and managing several disease outbreaks across the globe and has thus saved thousands of precious lives too. However, health cannot be defined as merely the absence of disease. Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Could geospatial technology be used to understand the distribution and determinants of ‘good’ health? Researchers at the University of Exeter in South West England, UK took up the task to leverage geospatial technology to find the answer.
The coast factor
The coast has long been used as an environment for convalescence, holidays and physical activity. The team of researchers used data from the UK’s national census to examine how health varied across the country and found that people are more likely to have good health the closer they live to the sea. As part of the Blue Gym programme of research around aquatic environments (or Blue Space) and health and wellbeing, they examined the relationships between proximity to the coast and self-reported health. They also found that, consistent with similar analysis of greenspace accessibility, the positive effects of coastal proximity may be greater amongst more socioeconomically deprived communities. The initial hypothesis was that these effects may be due to opportunities for stress reduction and increased physical activity.
The 2001 Census asked every person to rate their general health status in the previous 12 months as ‘Good’, ‘Fairly Good’ or ‘Not Good’. Researchers calculated the proportion of the population rating their health as ‘Good’ for Lower-layer Super Output Areas (LSOAs) across England. There are 32,482 LSOAs in England, and these areas are used to produce small area statistics on a wide variety of issues including health and socioeconomic status. They then used a geographic information system to calculate each LSOA’s proximity to the coast.
The researchers applied regression models to investigate the association between ‘good’ health rates and coastal proximity. Their analysis accounted for other factors including age, sex, socioeconomic deprivation and green space, and was carried out separately for urban and rural areas.
The result Proximity to the coast was positively associated with good health, with a small, but significant increase in the percentage of people reporting good health among populations residing closer to the sea. They also found that, consistent with the similar analysis of green space accessibility, the positive effects of coastal proximity may be greater amongst more socio-economically deprived communities. While this type of study design cannot prove cause and effect, it is consistent with findings from similar studies. Their findings indicate that the health and wellbeing effects of living near to, and spending time at, the coast warrant further investigation.
Dr Benedict W. Wheeler, who was a part of the research team, feels that health promoting characteristics of coastal environments could be made more accessible, or transferred to other settings (e.g. through virtual environments). However, any policy initiatives designed to reap public health and wellbeing benefits from the coasts would need to balance these benefits against threats from extreme events, climate change impacts, and inappropriate coastal development.