The UAE healthcare system is one of the country’s highest priorities, and rightly so given the increase in lifestyle-related disorders and sedentary habits afflicting its residents.
According to United Nations World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, the population of the Emirates stood at 9.16 million last year and is forecast to grow to 10.98 million by 2030, which will almost certainly increase demand for health-related services.
The biggest health concerns in the UAE include obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and tobacco use, which are mostly a result of the unhealthy lifestyles people have adopted.
“The UAE has seen tremendous economic and industrial development in recent years, resulting in a shift in social behaviours towards those often seen in developed countries,” says Faisal Hasan, a staff physician at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi’s cardiovascular medicine, heart and vascular institute. “For many, sedentary lifestyles and seemingly endless fast-food options have replaced the traditional ways of work, travel and cuisine, making way for the increase of diseases.”
A recent study by UAE University of 29,410 children between the ages of 3 and 18 found that 40 per cent were overweight, 24.4 per cent were obese and 5.7 per cent extremely obese. While a report titled Global Burden of Disease Study 2013, by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, showed that more than 66 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women in the UAE were considered overweight or obese.
“The number of food and beverage outlets from all around the world make eating out and ordering in very convenient,” says Dimitrios Spanos, head of clinical dietetics at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. “If this becomes a regular habit, it can be challenging to control portion sizes. If you do choose to order fast food or eat out, it is important that it does not become a habit.”
Poor diet choices have also contributed to an increase in the number of residents suffering from diabetes. “In the UAE, diabetes currently affects 19.3 per cent of the population, placing the nation 14th worldwide among countries with the highest diabetes prevalence per capita,” says Saf Naqvi, medical director, consultant physician and endocrinologist at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre. “Shifts toward unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles are strongly influencing the accelerating diabetes rates.”
According to Spanos, diet choices can be affected by a number of factors. “During the summer months, people tend to stay indoors and opt for activities such as watching television, many times having meals in front of the television, which can lead to overeating,” he says. “For people who have desk jobs, longer working hours can keep you seated and in front of your computer for extended hours without eating. These long breaks without a healthy snack lead to increased appetite and big portions at dinner time.”
In addition to obesity and diabetes, heart disease is a major concern – accounting for 36.7 per cent of deaths (the leading cause) in Abu Dhabi in 2013, according to the Health Authority Abu Dhabi. Tobacco smokers are at a greater risk of heart disease, stroke and different types of cancers. According to a 2015 report by the WHO, about 28 per cent of the adult male population and 2.4 per cent of the adult female population in the UAE are smokers.
As the Government’s focus on developing the UAE as a medical-tourism destination gets into full swing, with hospitals and medical centres opening up across the country, it’s education that is most needed.
“Health education from a young age is extremely important. A healthy, active child has a better chance of growing into a healthy, active adult,” says Spanos. “By instilling awareness about how important a balanced diet and exercise is to overall health at a young age, people are equipped with the knowledge about what’s best for their body.”
Dietitians and fitness professionals can help steer you towards a healthy lifestyle, but discipline plays a role, too. Hasan suggests taking small steps. “For example, instead of driving to a nearby place, try walking instead,” he says. “When eating out, look for a healthier menu option. Try enlisting a friend or family member for some extra motivation and to hold you accountable.”
He says that by continuing to find new ways to improve your lifestyle, becoming healthier can be enjoyable, too.