New report: small changes individuals can make to lower deaths.
New Zealanders can harness consumption patterns and purchasing power to help benefit the environment – and by doing so can alter or reduce the five lifestyle factors which contribute to 90 per cent of the country’s deaths.
That is one of the key findings of The Environment and Our Health, a new report from life, health and wellbeing insurer AIA NZ. It applies a new focus on the environment as a principal factor in good health – and recommends changes individual New Zealanders can apply to aid the environment and thus their own health.
“We often think about environmental sustainability as a global challenge but our day-to-day interaction with our environment can have a significant impact on our health, too,” says Len Elikhis, Chief Product and Investments Officer at AIA NZ.
“For humans to thrive, a healthy environment is essential and, in the same way, the environment needs us to be living healthy and sustainable lifestyles to thrive. Globally, almost a quarter of all annual deaths (12 million) are linked to the environment, and nearly two-thirds of these deaths are due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer and diabetes,” he says.
“At AIA NZ, we believe it’s our social responsibility to move away from simply being a payer of claims, to helping New Zealanders live Healthier, Longer, Better Lives,” says Elikhis. “As part of that, we want to empower individuals and communities to choose healthy behaviours that not only improve health and wellbeing, but also reduce our environmental footprint.”
In 2021, AIA recognised interaction with the environment as a fifth modifiable risk behaviour or lifestyle factor (in addition to smoking, physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, and excessive alcohol consumption) that contribute to five deadly NCDs in New Zealand – heart disease, respiratory disease, cancer, diabetes and poor mental health.
The Environment and Our Health report delves into this insight deeper, identifying four distinct areas within the overall concept of “interacting with the environment” that are harming our health: climate change, air pollution, agriculture and food production, plus urbanisation and the built environment.
“Climate change represents more regular and extreme weather events impacting our wellbeing and resilience. Air pollution is exacerbated by the use of internal combustion engine vehicles and industrial emissions, as well as poor in-home ventilation – which causes respiratory illness associated with dampness,” Elikhis says.
“Unsustainable agricultural practices contribute to environmental degradation, including biodiversity loss, freshwater use and land-system change, while dietary shifts to more processed foods impact on nutritional quality and costs of our foods causing a range of chronic health conditions, such as obesity.
“Urbanisation – which is the process of the population shifting from rural to urban areas – provides economic benefits, but also commonly creates adverse side effects for NCD-related health outcomes like increased sedentary behaviour through office work, commuting in private vehicles, and a less nutritious diet.”
The report then aims to promote the hidden health benefits that come from taking small steps to minimise environmental impact. Among changes recommended in the report are:
- Avoiding over-consumption – Using less water, conserving electricity, avoiding chemical use, and buying second-hand items can reduce our environmental footprints. Statistics show that recycling has significant benefits for air quality. Recycling one plastic drink bottle saves enough energy to power a computer for 25 minutes.
- Local reliance – Choosing to buy locally grown foods from a farmers’ market reduces the carbon footprint from food miles. Reusable products instead of single-use products reduces environmental load and influences purchasing patterns. Switching to solar power at home reduces harmful emissions that result from generating electricity. While we rely heavily on renewables such as hydro, geothermal and wind which produce 82 per cent of our electricity in Aotearoa, 60 per cent of our total energy supply still comes from fossil fuels, primarily to power our vehicles.
- Dietary choices – Eating patterns that minimise damage to the environment while supporting our health and wellbeing are ‘win-win’ diets. These diets tend to be plant-based, emphasising vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Every individual that makes one change to their diet has enormous potential for influencing purchasing patterns, health and impact on the planet.
- Transport – Shifting to active transport (cycling or walking) and public transport versus private cars can significantly reduce air pollution via vehicle emissions – plus there is economic benefit from reduced transport costs. We can fly less by continuing to schedule virtual meetings, holidaying locally, and using trains instead of planes where possible.
- Air quality – Improving indoor air quality has never been more important given, the increased time New Zealanders have spent at home in recent years. Reducing or quitting smoking is another way to reduce air pollution for us personally, as well as those around us.
As a life, health and wellbeing insurer, AIA New Zealand has invested heavily in developing programmes that support New Zealanders to maintain and improve their health throughout their lives, says Elikhis: “Central to AIA NZ’s preventative healthcare focus is AIA Vitality, our science-backed health and wellbeing programme. Through AIA Vitality, members are nudged to make lifestyle changes with the aim of decreasing their risk of developing an NCD.
“AIA New Zealand is inspired by the opportunity to improve our environmental impact, as well as empower our customers and all New Zealanders to try to make a difference. AIA Group’s global scale also puts our organisation in a powerful position to be able to amplify even small changes for significant impact.”
- As part of the AIA Group’s overarching Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) strategy, AIA NZ has committed to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
- AIA has committed to the Science Based Targets initiative, a global body enabling businesses to set ambitious emissions reduction targets.
For more information go to aia.co.nz