UAE's healthcare bill for diabetes could soar to $3.4 billion a year, study suggests

Forecasters predict there will be 1.6 million people in the country with the condition by 2031

Diagnosis and proper management of diabetes is crucial to keeping costs in check and patients healthy. Photo: Glucare
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The annual cost of dealing with type 2 diabetes in the UAE could soar to $3.4 billion by 2031, a new study has suggested.

Researchers in Abu Dhabi forecast that 1.6 million people in the country will have the condition in the early part of the next decade, while even more will have major health problems.

Sedentary lifestyles and poor diet in the Gulf region have contributed to soaring rates of diabetes, which can lead to heart disease, strokes, blindness, kidney problems and other medical conditions.

Scientists at Khalifa University's College of Computing and Mathematical Sciences in Abu Dhabi used complex modelling to work out that the UAE's annual bill for dealing with diabetes could reach about $3.4 billion (Dh12.49 billion) a year in 2031, based on 2021 prices.

In 2021, the country's total healthcare costs for diabetes were $2.09 billion (Dh7.68 billion).

To combat diabetes, we need to combat obesity
Dr Abdishakur Abdulle, New York University Abu Dhabi

“We believe that this study will be valuable for decision-makers to comprehend the damage inflicted by this disease and take essential measures to manage [the] current diabetes situation and prevent further complications,” the authors wrote in their paper, published this month in Mathematical Methods in the Applied Sciences.

The UAE has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world – at a reported 18.7 per cent – and previously analysis has indicated that the figure could climb to 21.4 per cent by 2030.

Diabetes involves elevated levels of glucose in the blood and about nine out of 10 cases, the authors noted, are type 2 diabetes, caused by the body becoming resistant to insulin or failing to make enough of the hormone.

While type 1 diabetes usually develops in childhood and adolescence, and is an autoimmune disorder in which the pancreas makes little or no insulin, type 2 diabetes is largely the result of lifestyle factors associated with people becoming overweight.

The World Health Organisation states that the prevalence of type 2 diabetes has risen “dramatically” in the past three decades “in countries of all income levels”.

Dr Abdishakur Abdulle, associate director of the public health research centre at New York University Abu Dhabi, said that it was “very important” that modelling of the kind featured in the new study was carried out to help scientists and policymakers understand the likely situation in the years to come.

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He added that he was hopeful that the UAE could make progress in dealing with type 2 diabetes and avoid some of the worst predictions regarding the impact of the disease.

“There's been an ongoing effort on so many levels,” he said.

“For example, in terms of prevention there's a new programme from Abu Dhabi Department of Health, Ifhas, to identify people who are susceptible to diabetes – pre-diabetic – and people who have diabetes.”

He said a major problem was that many people did not realise they had diabetes, with a diagnosis made only after the disease had progressed to cause organ damage.

Promoting healthy lifestyle choices

Efforts through Ifhas, a periodic screening programme, can ensure that people at risk make lifestyle changes or start treatment, Dr Abdulle said.

“Our society is well educated and most, if not all, understand the importance of prevention, the importance of acting on this type of predictive model,” he added.

“Yes, there's a trend but this is amenable to change. To combat diabetes, we need to combat obesity, for example.”

Figures published in 2020 by the World Obesity Federation indicate that 31 per cent of women and 25 per cent of men in the UAE are obese.

Dr Antje Hebestreit, head of the unit of lifestyle disorders at the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology in Germany, said that women in the Mena region could be particularly at risk of becoming obese and developing health problems.

“In many countries, it's not common that women and girls are physically active and exercise,” she said.

“[They are] more sedentary and live more in the home environment.”

She said that some countries had successfully introduced measures to improve diets and reduce the risks of obesity and diabetes, citing taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Modelling studies from the US indicate, she said, that such taxes had the potential to reduce rates of diabetes.

The UAE has brought in levies, introducing a 50 per cent tax on carbonated drinks and a 100 per cent tax on energy drinks in 2017.

The 50 per cent tax was imposed on sugar-sweetened drinks in 2020.

People can act to reduce their risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, say experts.

Dr Hebestreit advised a healthy diet containing fruit, vegetables and wholegrains, and said drinking plenty of water is important.

Making lifestyle changes is not a short-term process, said Dr Mirey Karavetian, a nutrition scientist at the University of Toronto who has researched obesity in the Gulf region.

She suggests allowing two years to gradually make the transition to a healthier lifestyle.

“It's not one simple [thing]; it's a whole lifestyle,” she said. “A good way is to [set] realistic goals and timelines – in these two weeks do this – and moving from one step to another.”

While having a good diet is important to prevent diabetes, “it doesn't have to be punishment”, she said.

Instead, it should be “a little bit controlled”, with people being more mindful when they eat, by avoiding watching television or using a mobile phone during meals.

Dr Karavetian said intermittent fasting, in which individuals do not eat during certain periods, could be useful.

An alternative is eating two large meals a day, or five small meals, and not eating between meals. Consistent eating patterns are important.

Getting enough sleep should be a priority, Dr Karavetian said, along with avoiding stress and getting regular exercise, ideally at least every other day.

Updated: March 03, 2024, 5:13 AM