The ties between New Zealanders’ health and our environment have been revealed in a new report released today by AIA NZ: The Environment and our Health.
Increasing temperatures and air pollution, the rapid pace of urbanisation, and our shifting diets, are all key contributors to both physical and mental wellbeing.
In fact, findings show that our interaction with the environment is one of five modifiable behavioural risk factors that collectively contribute to more than 90% of deaths in Aotearoa New Zealand. However, this requires both an individual and collective response.
Len Elikhis, AIA NZ Chief Product and Investments Officer, says the connection between the environment and New Zealanders’ health is both far-reaching and concerning.
“We often think about climate change as a global challenge, but our day-to-day interaction with our environment can have a significant impact on our health too – the air we breathe, the food and water we consume, and the amount of time we spend in nature,” says Len.
“Environmental events such as the Upper North Island floods, Cyclone Gabrielle, and the Canterbury wildfire have had a devastating impact on the wellbeing of our communities.
“AIA knows we cannot thrive in an unhealthy environment, and the environment cannot thrive when lifestyle behaviours aren’t sustainable.
“Outlining this inter-connectedness between the environment and our health outcomes, and how we can take steps to correct the issue, is what AIA’s Environment and our Health report aims to do.”
Four environmental factors harming our health
There are four main environmental components which impact our health: climate change, air pollution, agriculture and food production, and urbanisation and the built environment.
- Climate change represents a serious global health threat. It directly affects mental and physical health through more severe or regular storms, droughts, floods, and heatwaves, while also indirectly affecting health through ecological change, water quality, and land-use change. It also impacts our mental health, with evidence suggesting that extreme weather events can trigger illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. The economic costs of responding to the challenges of climate change also need to be carefully considered to ensure a fair and just transition that does not further disadvantage financially vulnerable people.
- Air pollution is second only to smoking when it comes to causing NCDs such as cancer and heart disease. Air pollution can be caused naturally through the likes of volcanic activity, or caused by human activity such as use of fossil fuels, industrial emissions, and land clearing.
- Agriculture and food production is a driver of climate change, biodiversity loss, freshwater use, and land-system change. The most common environmental issues in the food system relate to food processing loss, food wastage and packaging, energy efficiency, transportation of food, water consumption and waste management. Dietary shifts to more processed foods also contribute to the environmental impact of food production. However, it’s worth noting New Zealand’s meat and dairy production is generally one of most carbon efficient productions globally.
- Urbanisation, or the built environments we live in, can affect our physical and mental health. It’s anticipated that by 2050, 75 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. Increased sedentary behaviour through office work and commuting in private vehicles can reduce fitness and can negatively impact mental wellbeing, while green and blue spaces and increased mobility through public transport can create positive impacts.
There is some good news
Many threads tie the environment to public health, but the upside is that through small, healthy lifestyle changes, not only can we improve our health, but we’re looking after the planet, too.
“At AIA NZ, we believe it’s our social responsibility to move away from simply being a payer of claims, to partnering with New Zealanders to help them live Healthier, Longer, Better lives,” Len continues.
“We want to increase peoples’ control over their own health by engaging and empowering individuals and communities to choose healthy behaviours that reduce the risk of NCDs later in life.
“If we each take small steps over time to improve our environment and our health, then we can create cumulative change and have a significant positive impact.
“Central to AIA NZ’s preventative healthcare focus is AIA Vitality, our market-leading health and wellbeing programme. Through AIA Vitality members are nudged to make lifestyle changes with the aim of decreasing their risk of developing NCDs. Living a healthy lifestyle can be expensive and AIA Vitality can also help to reduce these costs through discounted partner offers and rewards.
“We also practice what we preach at AIA NZ through our comprehensive environment, social, and governance strategy to reduce our own environmental impact business-wide.”