A study of 30,000 cardiac patients in Abu Dhabi revealed more than 70 per cent were at risk of a heart attack because of their high cholesterol levels.
Doctors at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi and Imperial College London Diabetes Centre (ICLDC) found the average low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol was an alarming 140 mg/dl, about three times higher than the acceptable level to prevent a heart attack.
So-called "bad" cholesterol in the body can build up as plaque in the walls of the arteries and block blood flow to the heart.
If untreated, it can lead to a cardiac event like a heart attack.
While an LDL cholesterol range of 100 mg/dl to 129 mg/dl is acceptable for people with no health issues, this level is considered high for patients suffering from heart disease or those with risk factors like diabetes.
“Every point of increased LDL cholesterol increases their risk of heart attack by 25 per cent,” said Dr Hani Sabbour, a consultant cardiologist in the Heart and Vascular Institute at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
“The high bad cholesterol levels that we see in the UAE are shocking and need to be urgently addressed.
“We strongly urge people to have a regular heart health screening so that they can monitor these essential numbers, and avoid the loss of life and productivity especially among the younger population.”
Another major risk factor that is causing a rise in cardiovascular disease in the UAE population is diabetes. According to the International Diabetes Federation, there are more than 1 million people living with diabetes in the UAE and another 1.2 million with pre-diabetes, which is where blood-sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough yet to be diagnosed as Type 2 diabetes.
Doctors suggest dietary changes can help reduce cholesterol levels, such as introducing oats, whole grains like barley, okra, beans and apples.
People with diabetes are two to four times more likely than others to develop cardiovascular disease.
High-cholesterol levels can be controlled through diet and medication, but doctors are concerned too many patients are self diagnosing with the help of the internet and missing out on simple solutions to health problems.
“There is an inertia towards medical therapy, especially in this age of ‘Dr. Google’ where patients self-diagnose and decide that they know best how to treat their health issues,” he said.
“They fall victim to misinformation about life-saving cholesterol drugs and refuse to follow prescribed treatment plans because of perceived side effects.
“We also see young high-risk patients who are not convinced that they can have a heart attack because no one wants to think 10 years into the future right now.”
Another critical factor in abnormal cholesterol levels in the local populations in the Gulf is underdiagnosed familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH), an inherited defect in how the body recycles LDL cholesterol.
Those with FH are born with high LDL cholesterol levels, and it can reach above 190 mg/dl over time if not addressed.
In 34,366 screened patient records, doctors at the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi found that every 1 in 112 patients had FH.
Patients with FH have 20 times higher risk of developing heart disease.
“Unfortunately, our study showed that most patients with FH had an elevated lipid panel,” said Dr Sabbour.
“We recommend a national programme and policies for UAE-wide FH awareness, early screening and management of the disease.”