Dubai: An ongoing UAE society survey shows that it is possible to bring about a healthy change in society and ensure a reduction in metabolic disorders with increased awareness and education that can encourage people to adapt to healthier and more active lifestyles.
Statistics on the general health of Emiratis indicate that one in five Emiratis is diabetic and more than 65 per cent of the Emirati population is either overweight or obese.
The Public Health Research Department of New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) had conducted a study across the country in February 2020. The study aimed at determining the common cause of chronic diseases among Emiratis in the UAE. The ongoing project, which is being conducted in collaboration with various health-care stakeholders in UAE, aims to survey the health habits of more than 20,000 Emiratis in the age group of 18 and above. More than 9,000 Emiratis have already participated in the survey.
On the eve of the World Health Day on April 7, Gulf News spoke to Dr Raghib Ali, director of the NYU Abu Dhabi Public Health Research Centre and founder of the UAE Healthy Future Study for a closer look at this unique research project.
GULF NEWS: Dr Ali, tell us about your work on the UAE Healthy Future Study?
DR RAGHIB ALI: Our mission is to improve the health of the UAE population and wider region through research, making a practical difference to people’s lives. To that end, the UAE Healthy Future Study focuses on obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases (CVD). It’s vital that we gain more information on these conditions because risk factors operate slightly differently in different populations. For example, in the UAE, we have similar levels of physical inactivity, unhealthy diet and obesity rates as in the United States, but we have double the rate of diabetes, which suggests that there are other factors at play.
There is some evidence that populations that were previously food deprived — as the UAE was in the 1940s and 1950s — may have had an impact on genetic expression for a couple of generations. There are also early-life factors that may have some impact as well, so it’s a very complicated subject to study.
In the UAE, people in their 40s and 50s have a higher incidence of metabolic disorders — CVD, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, hypertension etc. What is the lesson the masses need to learn from this pandemic?
All the above conditions have been shown to increase the risk of intensive care and/or death from COVID-19. Basically, it makes the outcome worse. Of course, you can’t solve this overnight, but in the longer term, it’s important to be in as good health as possible to protect yourself against metabolic disorders generally and from potential future pandemics.
How easy is it to change people’s habits through intervention?
There is good evidence that you can change people’s habits in the short term, but to maintain it for a long period of time is much more challenging. Obesity is a difficult problem to tackle. Pretty much every country in the world has an increasing trend of obesity, though some higher-income countries in Europe are beginning to level off now. There’s a contrast with tobacco use, which rose quickly, but also came down pretty quickly because there were a number of levers that we could use, from health messaging to taxation and availability.
Obesity is more complicated because you’re trying to change people’s behaviour on multiple levels.
How has COVID-19 research informed the study?
There has been more research over the last 12 months than probably in the previous 12 years. And once you get used to doing research for any disease, it helps you to do research for other diseases.
Fortunately, COVID-19 caused relatively few deaths in the UAE because of the young population and because the pandemic was well-handled. But we know that obesity is a major risk factor, so are diabetes and hypertension. So all the risk factors that are bad for diabetes, heart disease and cancer are bad for COVID as well, which reminds us of the importance of addressing those risks. And I think everyone is more health conscious now because of COVID.
What other changes can we expect?
Wearable technology is very promising because it can measure things such as blood pressure, heart rate, diet, physical activity, etc, and then allow for remote intervention. We’re also getting into the stage now where this doesn’t even need to involve a human being — thanks to artificial intelligence. And it is going to be one of the main means of encouraging people towards helpful habits.
Another major area of interest now is polygenic risk scores, which can tell how a person’s risk to various diseases compares to others with a different genetic constitution. There is some evidence that if you tell people then that helps them to change their behaviour.
How can government health policies be influenced or impacted?
Changing people’s behaviour is very difficult, and the government does have a role to play. It has intervened in various ways — for example the tax on sugary drinks introduced in 2019. It’s also important that food comes with information about calories, sugar and salt content. Fortifying foods with vitamins is another tool that can help, and there are also regulations on advertising. The problem now is that fast food is cheaper than healthy food such as fruit and vegetables and this can be looked into.
Promoting physical activity is obviously important and the government has done a lot in this regard. This can start at schools as well as workplaces. Encouraging healthy behaviour is important, such as providing gyms for employees or encouraging them to use the stairs.
Overall, are you optimistic about the future of health care?
I am optimistic that as people become more health conscious we may encourage them to change their habits in the longer term. We should also recognise that it’s not easy. Life expectancy, at least in high-income countries, has stopped increasing after 100 years of a continuous rise. But I’ve been practising medicine for more than 20 years now and wearables and genetic risk scores are major changes in the way we are able to monitor patients and to calculate risk of future disease. I think it will make a difference.
Emiratis can log on to https://uaehealthyfuture.ae to book an appointment for the UAE Healthy Future Study.