Are big cities bad for us?

While we rely on our big cities for the wellbeing of our economy, it seems when it comes to the health of those who choose to live amongst the hustle and bustle of the concrete jungle things are not so rosey.

Research has revealed that the stresses associated with city life can have a significant impact on the human brain, potentially increasing the risk of mental illness such as schizophrenia and other disorders, which begs the question…is it worth risking your mental health to be closer to the action?

According to a report last year on, researchers involved in the German based study conducted imaging scans on healthy volunteers to assess the differences in brain activity between city and rural residents. Participants were asked to lie in a brain scanner and solve math problems to see how their brains reacted to stress caused by other individuals.

All of the volunteers fell short when it came to solving the intentionally difficult mathematical problems and were told that their performance was bad and disappointing by researchers as they lay in the scanner.

Of the 32 volunteers those from cities with a population of over 100,000 showed heightened activity in an area of the brain known as the amygdala, which controls our reaction to environmental threats, compared to those who live in towns with more than 10,000 residents.

Interestingly, those who had lived in a more densely populated urban environment for their entire childhood had the most heightened activity in this part of the brain. However when not subjected to criticism from the investigators conducting the experiment, there was no noticeable difference between urban and rural participants.

Director of Germany’s Central Institute for Mental Health and author of the report, Dr Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, said previous studies conducted on animals suggest that exposure to stress early in life can cause lasting effects into adulthood.

He said this may explain the link between heightened brain activity and city life, which subjected residents to a greater deal of stress due to the demand of being surrounded by more people on a daily basis.

But before all the city folk out there literally pack up and head for the hills fearing for your mental wellbeing, it might be worth noting that Elizabeth Phelps from New York University, who happens to be an expert in emotions and the brain, said the results of the study cannot conclusively say there’s a direct link to mental illness and city life at this stage.

“These results are interesting but preliminary,” said Phelps.

“This will raise a lot of interest in this idea. Whether or not it pans out in future research, who knows, but I think it’s worth investigating.”

While studies such as this are interesting, I wonder how much they will really change the way we live.

We’ve been told that mobile phones could cause brain tumours, plastic is bad for us and many of the foods we love will kill us prematurely…but how many have thrown out their mobile phones, refuse to use anything made from plastic and only eat like rabbits lest our health deteriorate more rapidly than might otherwise occur?

Sure, urban life has traditionally been a lot more hectic, but in today’s modern world where everyone is always busy, is there really that much difference? And besides, when you live in the midst of the action, you avoid the stress of travelling on our congested roads to get to it! They might not be ideal, but our cities are here to stay and many of us will always want to call them home.


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Michael is a director of Metropole Property Strategists who help their clients grow, protect and pass on their wealth through independent, unbiased property advice and advocacy. He's once again been voted Australia's leading property investment adviser and his opinions are regularly featured in the media. Visit

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