By Hellen Gitau, Travel Scholar and Speaker Ambassador at the 2019 Planetary Health Annual Meeting

Dr. John Ji is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Science at Duke Kunshan University (DKU), where he is also the Associate Director for a new international Masters of Environmental Policy (iMEP) program at DKU. John’s research interests span environmental health, occupational medicine, neuro-epidemiology, and the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Prof. Ji is particularly interested in studying how our changing environment impacts health and longevity.

Prof. Ji received his bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience from Johns Hopkins University in 2008 and later received his doctoral degree in Environmental and Occupational Medicine and Epidemiology from Harvard School of Public Health in 2013.

I was honoured to be Prof. Ji’s speaker ambassador during the 2019 Planetary Health Annual Meeting. During the meeting, Prof. Ji made a powerful presentation at lightning talk session where he shared his findings from a longitudinal cohort study in China that focused on residential greenness and mortality in elderly women and men. His research findings suggest that proximity to more green space is associated with increased longevity, which have policy implications for China’s national blueprint toward “ecological civilisation” and their preparation for an ageing society.

In addition to this study, John has also contributed to research which looks at the association between residential greenness and cognitive function. A recent study found that a higher level of residential greenness was related to better cognitive function and slower cognitive decline among Chinese older adults. From the findings, the study recommends involving more green space in city planning during the process of urbanisation as it may reduce cognitive decline and subsequently, cases of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, which would, in turn, reduce healthcare expenditures in China. Furthermore, afforestation and urban green space are important for climate change mitigation, as forest stock and vegetation can lower the concentration of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Prof. Ji pointed out that urban green space is a major planetary health solution, although its co-benefits have been historically understudied and underrepresented in research.

John has also been working on air pollution related studies, as it is an important risk factor in China. According to the Global Burden of Disease study, air pollution is estimated to be the fourth leading cause of death and disability combined (behind dietary risks, high blood pressure, and tobacco) in China. With China aiming to raise the average life expectancy from 76.3 years in 2015 to 79.0 years by 2030, as described in the Healthy China 2030 plan, air pollution must be curbed. At the Planetary Health Annual Meeting’s poster session, Prof. Ji shared his research findings on whether greenspace can modify air pollution mortality.

Finally, Prof. Ji has been engaged in generating evidence-based approaches for policy-makers to help China address health-related SDGs. This stems from observations that, despite the tremendous progress made by China in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) over the past decades, China still faces major challenges as the country works to achieve SDG Goal 3 (Good Health & Well-being). For example, China is faced with a huge burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), high smoking rates, lack of road safety policies/laws, widespread stigma towards mental health issues, an insufficient health workforce, severe air pollution, food safety problems, and a lack of responsiveness in their health system. What I learned from my conversations with Prof. Ji is that cities can be a powerful platform to achieve healthier societies, highlighted by suggestions in The Tsinghua-Lancet Healthy Cities in China Commission Report.

At the annual meeting’s Student Ambassador lunch, I was impressed by Prof. Ji’s humility and passion to mentor early career researchers, especially to help grow my research profile. During our short engagement, my main takeaway from him is that to save the planet from the impacts of human civilization, as researchers, there is need to incorporate environmental change in our health research, and most importantly, the need to share our findings with policymakers to ensure the relevant policies are put in place.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Planetary Health Alliance or its members.

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