Dr Ahmad Edris, cardiovascular and interventional cardiology consultant at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: It is a well-known fact that cardiovascular diseases are the top killer in the UAE, causing about 30 per cent of all deaths in the country. These diseases are also occurring among more and more young patients, and their presentation is quite complex among some of the most at-risk groups.

“In the UAE, about 20 per cent of the adult population smokes, and this is one of the biggest factors contributing to cardiovascular risk among people from the Arab region. At the same time, people from the Indian subcontinent and the UAE are already more prone to cardiovascular diseases, being afflicted a decade earlier than their Western counterparts,” Dr Dinesh Babu, consultant cardiologist at Medeor 24x7 Hospital in the capital, told Gulf News.

“Given these risk factors, it is of utmost importance that residents take their health seriously. They should undertake a full medical assessment or screening as soon as they turn 25, and implement positive lifestyle habits if they haven’t already done so,” said Dr Ahmad Edris, cardiovascular and interventional cardiology consultant at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.

The UAE’s record with cardiovascular disease mirrors global trends, with more than 17.5 million people dying each year across the world from cardiovascular diseases, according to the World Health Organisation. But it is not just the known fatalities that should ring alarm bells in the UAE. Experts believe that up to 70 per cent of the population either has some form of cardiovascular disease, or is at risk.

The risk of cardiovascular diseases arises due to unhealthy lifestyles, as well as the high prevalence of diabetes, obesity, hypertension, hypercholesterolaemia and smoking in the UAE.

Cholesterol threat

“A growing number of South Asian expats below the age of 40 years is suffering from heart attacks, and these attacks are more fatal when they occur among the young. The underlying cause among this group of patients is hypercholesterolaemia — deposits which narrow blood vessels,” Dr Babu said.

The doctor said studies have shown that people from the Indian subcontinent have low levels of good cholesterol, known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL), in their blood, even though their levels of bad cholesterol (LDL, or low-density lipoprotein) are within the acceptable range. This means that there is not enough HDL, also known as scavenger cholesterol, to ‘scavenge’ bad cholesterol from tissues and carry it to the liver to be excreted. As a result, deposits continue to build up and narrow blood vessels.

“It is advised that HDL levels be maintained above 40 milligrams per decilitre, but in many patients from the subcontinent with heart disease, the level is less than 30, and this could be a result of genetic factors,” Dr Babu said.

Smoking and diabetes

Smoking is also known to reduce the levels of HDL through various mechanisms.

Among the Emirati and Arab population, the biggest known risk factor for heart disease is diabetes, which doubles heart disease risk, or even triples it for menopausal women.

“Diabetics have a lot of oxidants in their blood, which allows bad cholesterol to be oxidised and deposited in vessels. Moreover, their levels of HDL and LDL tend to be unbalanced, further adding to the risk,” Dr Babu explained.

Despite these trends, the UAE aims to reduce deaths due to cardiovascular diseases from 300 per 100,000 of the population to 150 per 100,000 by 2021.

To that end, the doctors advised that residents pursue active lifestyles, which would help boost HDL levels in the blood, and protect against diabetes, obesity and hypertension. It is also advisable to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables to at least 400 grams a day.

“Fruits and vegetables, when eaten raw or lightly cooked, contain important antioxidants that reduce the oxidising of bad cholesterol. So apart from being healthy in general, these foods can provide important protection against heart disease,” Dr Babu advised.

“And of course, it is important to quit smoking, including shisha and loose tobacco. The risks of bad habits will only be magnified as people get older, so quit early — not just cigarettes but all forms of tobacco, including shisha,” Dr Edris advised.


30% deaths in UAE due to cardiovascular diseases

30-70% population has cardiovascular diseases or is at risk

37% do not exercise

32% are obese

20% adult population smokes

300 per 100,000 people die from cardiovascular diseases in the UAE

10 years younger on average: South Asians’ experience first heart attack

25-30 years: when people should undergo first regular heart health screenings