We hear a great deal — in fact, way too much — about the newest wonder drugs that will solve all our problems.
Our fascination with quick-fix technologies is fuelled by carefully planted stories from Big Pharma and the universities and researchers that stand to benefit from a successful drug. Almost invariably, it turns out that the drug is less effective than the hype suggests, while its side-effects are more numerous and worse than we are led to believe.
Meanwhile, we are not fed stories about — and thus overlook — the much more effective strategies that really can make a difference. It’s mainly because they are simple, obvious, might need a bit of effort and take some time, and worst of all, don’t make money for Big Pharma.
Almost 15 years ago, three of my friends and colleagues published a book about the adverse public-health impacts of urban sprawl. In it, they suggested that the antidote to urban sprawl is Smart Growth, an approach to urban planning that emphasizes compact, multi-use urban centres that are more walkable, bikeable and ecologically sustainable, while encouraging infill development and re-development that densifies the community.
They reported that the evidence showed that health benefits of this approach included “protecting respiratory health, improving cardiovascular health, preventing cancer, avoiding traumatic injuries and fatalities, controlling depression and anxiety, improving well-being.”
In fact, they compared Smart Growth with “a medicine that treats a multitude of diseases,” adding that: “In the medical world, such an intervention would be miraculous.”
There are other equally “miraculous” interventions that are much more useful than many of the drugs we are peddled. Here are a few.
First, the benefits of “green nature,” which were explored almost 20 years ago by the innovative Healthy Parks, Healthy People program in Melbourne, Australia. They found evidence that being in or even viewing nature — something as simple as a neighbourhood park, some street trees, local gardens — could reduce crime, foster psychological well-being, reduce stress, boost immunity, enhance productivity and promote healing in psychiatric and other patients. More than that, they concluded: “It is most likely essential for human development and long-term health and well-being.”
Another friend and colleague, Ming Kuo, looked at people living in social housing where some, by chance, had access to more green nature — what she sometimes calls “Vitamin G” — in their immediate environment. She found that, among other things, those with more green contact showed higher levels of mutual caring and support among neighbours and higher levels of optimism and sense of effectiveness. Among children, she found improved symptom relief for attention-deficit disorder and, among girls, better scores on tests of concentration and self-discipline.
In Canada, people working in the field of recreation and parks looked at the societal benefits of their programs and services. In addition to all the benefits of access to “Vitamin G,” they found evidence that their activities provide the key to balanced human development and a foundation for quality of life; help reduce self-destructive and anti-social behaviour; build strong families and healthy communities; reduce health-care, social service and police/justice costs; and are a significant economic generator.
Then there is the area of emotional well-being. The top public-health figure in the U.S. is the surgeon general. In 2015, the then-surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, gave a TEDMED Talk (the TED Talks for health and medicine) in which he discussed the health benefits of emotional well-being, which he equated to happiness. And he had this to say:
“Imagine if there was a force in your life that could reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, that could help you live longer, that could make your children less likely to use drugs and engage in crime, and that could even help you lose weight. It turns out, it is not a new prescription medication or medical procedure. The force I’m talking about is emotional well-being.”
Smart Growth, access to nature, recreation and parks services, attention to emotional well-being — these are some of the “wonder drugs” we really need. We would be much healthier — and much better off — if we put more of our effort and investment into developing these than in yet more pills.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.