Have recent events got you feeling in need of a brain boost? Research shows that living in the country can have numerous direct and indirect benefits on brain health and cognitive function in adults and children.
Cognitive health issues, like poor memory, brain fog, and mood issues, used to be thought of as an “older person’s problem”. However, new data shows that people are experiencing brain health issues and even signs of cognitive decline during middle age, young adulthood, the teen years, or even as children.
There are many causes, theories and mysteries surrounding this phenomenon. And individual health history, genetics and other factors can play a role.
However, one thing experts agree on is that lifestyle choices and environment play a key role in many types of brain health issues; from memory loss and cognitive development to mental health and mood.
This is really good news because lifestyle and environment are two areas we can influence.
What does all this have to do with country living? As it turns out, living in rural areas provides us with the optimal environmental and lifestyle conditions for enhanced cognitive health in children, adults, and the elderly.
Here are 7 ways country living can help boost cognitive health and development based on science.
#1: Less Noise Makes for a Happier, More Rested Brain
Cities are well-known for their problems with air pollution, which can cause and/or aggravate a variety of health conditions. But less attention is paid to the noise pollution that plagues most urban dwellers 24/7.
Yes, the sounds of traffic, aircraft, round the clock garbage pick-up, blasting stereos, trains, etc. do fade into the background after a while. But research has shown that consistent exposure to noise pollution can cause a decline in brain health, including: cognitive processing damage, mental health degradation, memory deficits, emotional stress, learning difficulties in children, and sleep deprivation (to name but a few).
Thus, by living in a quieter setting, you can help protect your brain from the damaging effects of urban noise pollution. Plus, it’s been proven that the sounds of nature (like birds chirping in the morning or the sound of a babbling brook) positively impact the brain by helping it shift into “rest and restore mode” vs. “fight or flight”.
#2: Less EMF Exposure May Benefit Some People
The health impacts of electromagnetic fields (or “EMFs”) emitted from things like high-tension power lines, cell towers, Smart Phones, devices, and Wi-Fi is somewhat controversial.
However, there has been a link made between EMF exposure and cognitive health issues like dementia, brain fog, and memory issues. That doesn’t mean they will impact everyone the same, but there is indeed published evidence of potential harm.
Living rural typically means less exposure to EMFs because residential areas aren’t as densely populated with people and businesses running their WiFi devices, bluetooth, Smartmeters, radio towers, etc. all day and all night. That doesn’t mean you’ll have zero exposure, but unless you’re living near high-tension power lines, a cell tower, or another concentrated source of EMFs, you’ll have much less exposure than if you were living in a densely populated area.
Nature, and trees specifically, benefit the brain in a number of ways. According to Peter James, assistant professor in Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health: “[time spent around trees] translates into long-term changes in the incidence of depression, anxiety, cognitive decline, and chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease and cancer.”
Time spent closer to nature benefits children as well. According to a Spanish study from the Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology, regular exposure to greenspace benefitted children’s cognitive development by enhancing working memory (the ability to retain and sort information short-term) while reducing inattentiveness. Living near trees has also been shown to improve mental and emotional health by reducing anxiety, stress, and depression.
Learn more in: The Health Benefits of Living Near Trees
#4: The Opportunity to Garden Yields Multiple Brain Health Benefits
Many people find gardening relaxing and therapeutic, and “having more space to garden” is a top reason people move to the country. However, gardening isn’t just good for your physical health. According to research, gardening can benefit your brain by improving memory, attention, the ability to learn new things, retention and can even reduce your risk of dementia by up to 36%!
For children, time spent gardening stimulates their senses and helps them feel more bonded and connected, all of which promote healthy cognitive and emotional development.
Discover more incredible health and longevity benefits of gardening in: 5 Ways Gardening Fights Aging and Increases Lifespan
#5: Less Stress Equals Better Brain Development and Less Cognitive Wear and Tear
As we covered in-depth in How Rural Living Helps you Stress Less and Live Longer, life outside the city offers an ideal setting for creating a low-stress lifestyle.
How important is stress to brain health and development? It’s critical. According to a study published in the journal Neurology, researchers found the chronic stress in middle-aged adults was associated with an increase in cortisol, which caused memory impairment and decreased brain volume, aka: brain shrinkage!
For children, country living can provide an added brain- and mental health benefit.
Per a study published in the journal Nature , showed children raised in the city are more likely to have a permanently heightened sensitivity to stress than those who move to a city later in life. In other words, children who are raised in rural settings may be better equipped to manage and react creatively to life’s stressors than city kids.
Given what we just learned about chronic stress, cortisol, and brain shrinkage, “growing up country” could provide a significant advantage for our children.
#6: Tight-knit Communities Protect From the Cognitive Health Detriments Of Loneliness
If you grew up in a small rural town, or live in one now, you understand the sayings: “everybody knows everybody” and “there are no secrets in this town/1”. The bottom line is, although social behaviors and customs are not universal, people in small towns do tend to look out for each other and take pride in knowing who lives in their community.
That sense of small town community has become appealing to many folks in the 21st century. Where a staggering number of adults — from twenty-somethings to the elderly — report feeling lonely, without friendships and/or isolated. These feelings are especially prevalent in middle aged men and the elderly, and warrant serious concern.
Per the NIH,  social isolation has been linked to a variety of cognitive and brain health conditions, including: impaired memory, anxiety, depression, mood disorders, Alzheimer's, and general cognitive decline.
Living within a tight-knit community (rural or not!), offers a potentially powerful way to help protect people from the negative impacts of social isolation while enhancing their sense of purpose. Plus, when you live on acreage it offers endless opportunities to engage in meaningful work, which also helps protect against feelings of loneliness, isolation and cognitive decline.
#7: Farm life benefit the microbiome which supports the gut-brain axis
Living on a farm, especially with farm animals, has been shown to benefit the gut microbiome by increasing beneficial bacteria species. This, as we’ve covered before, explains why farm kids are often healthier and suffer less chronic disease than city or suburban kids.
However, these benefits extend beyond immunity thanks to the gut-brain connection. Your gut and your brain are connected by an information superhighway called the gut-brain-axis. It is through this axis that your gut and brain share endless pieces of information. It’s also been discovered that your gut has its very own nervous system — known as the enteric nervous system — and houses the majority of your serotonin, which is critical for brain health and emotional well-being. This is why the gut has been called: “The Second Brain” — it has a significant impact on our mental, emotional and cognitive health. It also explains those “gut feelings” or tummy problems we get when our brain knows something exciting, dangerous, etc. is about to happen.
All these links between your gut and brain, allow the brain to influence intestinal activities and the gut to influence mood, cognition, and mental health.  Thus, a more diverse, strong and healthy microbiome equals a healthier brain and mental/emotional state.
This is great news for farmers, hobby farmers, homesteaders, gardeners and even outdoor enthusiasts, all of which tend to have more diverse microbiota due to time spent in contact with nature, the dirt and farm animals.
If this is all true, why do country dwellers still experience cognitive health issues?
As you can see from the many references in this article (and we only scratched the surface!), there is plenty of evidence to support the beneficial effects of rural activities and the country lifestyle on brain health.
However, these tools and activities can only beneficial if you choose to partake in them on a regular basis.
Some ways to do this include: making a point to spend time in nature every day, take up gardening or try earthing (walking around barefoot on the ground), make connections in your local community and nurture friendships, spend time around trees (or plant some more!), exercise and move (preferably outdoors) every day, consider keeping farm animals or adopting a pet and be ever mindful of your stress levels.
Becoming aware of how country living can improve brain health is the first step, but taking action based on the science is what will ultimately yield better cognitive health for years to come.
For more science, research and first-hand stories on the health benefits of rural living, check out the Health section of our blog.