Extending UAE life expectancy 'needs more than high-quality health care'

Growth in lifespans in the Emirates and Saudi Arabia 'has remained stagnant'

Riders traverse the road of Sheikh Zayed road for the  Dubai Ride, part of the Dubai Fitness Challenge in Sheikh Zayed Road.  Ruel Pableo for The National
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Lack of exercise and poor diet are preventing life expectancy from increasing in the UAE, despite the country’s investments in health care, researchers have said.

The Emirates and Saudi Arabia – the focus of the study – both have good quality health systems but scientists say growth in lifespans "has remained stagnant".

A combination of education, training and health-promoting self-care can establish a generation that adheres to public health awareness
Researchers Dr Anak Agung Bagus Wirayuda, Dr Abdulaziz Al Mahrezi and Dr Moon Fai Chan

Efforts to improve lifestyles could be central to helping people in the neighbouring Gulf countries live longer and get closer to nations such as Japan, Canada and Switzerland when it comes to life expectancy.

The three researchers behind the study, based at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, said lifestyle-related diseases, including heart conditions, obesity and some cancers, "frequently plague" populations in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

"Sedentary behaviours, unhealthy diet patterns, tobacco consumption and insufficient physical exercise are major contributors to the non-communicable disease burden," the researchers, Dr Anak Agung Bagus Wirayuda, Dr Abdulaziz Al Mahrezi and Dr Moon Fai Chan, said.

These NCDs "drastically affect longevity" in both countries, often leading to premature deaths and poor quality of life.

"However, by addressing lifestyle aspects and instituting efficacious preventative measures, like endorsing healthy diets, regular exercise and tobacco reduction, we can mitigate the impacts of NCDs, thereby potentially accelerating progression in life expectancy," the researchers added.

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In their study, Comparing Life Expectancy Determinants between Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates from 1980–2020, they looked at the relationships between life expectancy and three key factors: economic status, socio-demographic status and investments in health care.

Writing in the European Journal of Investigation in Health, Psychology and Education, they concluded that these factors play a "mediating role" in determining life expectancy and said that there was "an imperative need" for policy interventions to address issues related to them and to "alter health behaviours".

"Despite marked advancements, life expectancy growth in Saudi Arabia and the UAE has remained stagnant compared to other developed nations," they wrote in the paper.

Citing World Health Organisation figures, the researchers said that between 2000 and 2019, life expectancy in the UAE rose from 73.2 years to 76.1 years, an increase of 2.9 years, while in Saudi Arabia it went up from 70.5 years to 74.3 years, a 3.8-year rise.

Over the same period, global life expectancy grew from 66.8 years to 73.4 years.

The researchers said that developed and high-income countries have an average life expectancy of more than 81 years, something they noted no GCC country has yet achieved. In Japan, they wrote, life expectancy is 85 years, in Switzerland it is 84.3 years and in Canada, 83 years.

How to improve life expectancy

Four key factors could help to improve life expectancy in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, according to the scientists. These include improving access to preventative care – including regular screenings and check-ups – and promoting health education.

"A combination of education, training and health-promoting self-care can establish a generation that adheres to public health awareness," they said.

As well as individual-level prevention, community-wide interventions are also useful, including tobacco-control measures and restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods.

The UAE has taken measures in recent years to discourage tobacco use, notably by introducing a 100 per cent levy on tobacco and products in 2017, and the consumption of sugary drinks, which were hit with a 50 per cent purchase tax in 2019.

The fourth factor is addressing what are described as social determinants of health, which includes changes to social policies.

Measures that enable the prevention and management of healthcare conditions can have wider benefits, according to the researchers.

"Such enhancements not only elevate the life quality and welfare of the population but also curtail healthcare expenditures, thereby bolstering societal and economic progression," they said.

The research was funded by the International Research Collaboration Co-Fund, which receives financial support from Sultan Qaboos University and Qatar University.

Updated: July 19, 2023, 6:46 AM