Residential green space improves cognitive performances in primary schoolchildren independent of traffic-related air pollution exposure

Nelly Saenen, Tim S. Nawrot, Pauline Hautekiet, Congrong Wang, Harry A. Roels, Payam Dadvand, Michelle Plusquin, E. Bijnens*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background: Cognitive performances of schoolchildren have been adversely associated with both recent and chronic exposure to ambient air pollution at the residence. In addition, growing evidence indicates that exposure to green space is associated with a wide range of health benefits. Therefore, we aimed to investigate if surrounding green space at the residence improves cognitive performance of primary schoolchildren while taking into account air pollution exposure.
Methods: Cognitive performance tests were administered repeatedly to a total of 307 primary schoolchildren aged 9-12y, living in Flanders, Belgium (2012-2014). These tests covered three cognitive domains: attention (Stroop and Continuous Performance Tests), short-term memory (Digit Span Forward and Backward Tests), and visual information processing speed (Digit-Symbol and Pattern Comparison Tests). Green space exposure was estimated within several radii around their current residence (50 m to 2000 m), using a aerial photo-derived high-resolution (1 m2) land cover map. Furthermore, air pollution exposure to PM2.5 and NO2 during the year before examination was modelled for the child's residence using a spatial-temporal interpolation method.
Results: An improvement of the children's attention was found with more residential green space exposure independent of traffic-related air pollution. For an interquartile range increment (21%) of green space within 100 m of the residence, a significantly lower mean reaction time was observed independent of NO2 for both the sustained-selective (-9.74 ms, 95% CI: -16.6 to -2.9 ms, p = 0.006) and the selective attention outcomes (-65.90 ms, 95% CI: -117.0 to -14.8 ms, p = 0.01). Moreover, green space exposure within a large radius (2000 m) around the residence was significantly associated with a better performance in short-term memory (Digit-Span Forward Test) and a higher visual information processing speed (Pattern Comparison Test), taking into account traffic-related exposure. However, all associations were attenuated after taking into account long-term residential PM2.5 exposure.
Conclusions: Our panel study showed that exposure to residential surrounding green space was associated with better cognitive performances at 9-12 years of age, taking into account traffic-related air pollution exposure. These findings support the necessity to build attractive green spaces in the residential environment to promote healthy cognitive development in children.
Original languageEnglish
Article number33
Number of pages13
JournalEnvironmental Health
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2023


  • Brain development
  • Greenspace
  • Mental health
  • Natural environment
  • Neurodevelopment


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