A nationwide study has revealed widespread high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels among Emiratis, raising the alarm over the prospect of a “public health emergency” of heart disease.
Initial results from the UAE Healthy Future Study have set out key health concerns among what remains a youthful population.
The research – led by New York University Abu Dhabi – has recruited close to 15,000 Emiratis to better understand risk factors for conditions such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
The health of volunteers is to be assessed for many years under the comprehensive project.
The median – the middle value in a set of data – age of the population is just 25, yet more than a third of people have high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, Dr Raghib Ali, principal investigator with the UAEHFS, said of study results gathered so far.
“So, this is really a public health emergency,” he said, adding that rates of heart disease could worsen if these issues were not dealt with.
“We have also shown relatively high rates of smoking, not particularly in men, but also in women.”
Exploring Emirati health
Dr Ali said that it took “many years to get all the approvals in place and to build trust” in everyone from regulators to participants and others involved in the study, which launched in 2016.
“That’s why it’s taken so long to recruit these 15,000 people but the real value of the study comes in the next phase,” he said.
This next stage of the study, which is set to last for decades, involves going back to volunteers who were analysed several years ago and looking at how their health has changed.
Studies like this that repeatedly analyse the same individuals over time are known as longitudinal or cohort studies, and these have been useful for identifying risks associated with everything from poor diet to smoking.
When they are analysed again, a proportion of participants may have developed diabetes, heart disease or other conditions, or even have died, and by looking at patterns of disease, researchers can isolate risk factors.
Dr Ali is also the chief medical officer of Our Future Health, a cohort study in the UK that, it was recently announced, has recruited one million participants.
New York University Abu Dhabi, in collaboration with Tamkeen, is managing the UAEHFS, while the Department of Health – Abu Dhabi, Dubai Health Authority, and the Ministry of Health and Prevention are also involved, as are researchers from other institutions.
Targeted health care
“Such studies are helpful in targeting a specific population, especially if we could [find] the causes to be able to identify specific interventions or an awareness programme,” Prof Ayesha Al Dhaheri, professor of nutrition at UAE University, and one of the study’s co-investigators, said.
Study participants give blood samples, and numerous other measurements are taken so that their health can be understood.
Several years ago, the study began to carry out genetic analysis on participants. It has completely sequenced the genetic material of some individuals – a process called whole genome sequencing.
This could be helpful in pinpointing genetic factors that predispose individuals to particular conditions.
Much data has already been collected and many scientific papers have been published on the findings, said officials.
These have largely been on what is termed baseline data, being information on individuals as they were when they entered the study.
While highly valuable, major longitudinal studies have typically been carried out on largely Caucasian populations, Dr Abdishakur Abdulle, an associate director and senior research scientist in the Public Health Research Centre at New York University Abu Dhabi, said.
Risk factors that they identify may be specific to populations of European descent, while risk factors found only among Emirati or Arab people are likely to be missed.
“Here, for the first time, data from Arab-Bedouin communities will contribute to the global literature,” Dr Abdulle, who is a co-principal investigator of the UAEHFS, said.
Numerous risk factors for ill-health are already well known, such as a lack of physical activity, obesity, poor diet, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.
These are, Dr Abdulle said, “common knowledge” and “not what we’re looking for”, with the focus instead being on risk factors specific to the UAE population.
Dr Abdulle said: “What other things are there that may or may not be modifiable?
“One example is vitamin D. Although we have an abundance of sunshine, our communities are overwhelmingly vitamin D deficient. No one knows why.”
He said that the Emirati population experienced a much earlier onset of serious disease than was seen in many other societies.
Again, Dr Abdulle said, it was uncertain why this was the case.
The data from a cohort study such as the UAEHFS could, Dr Abdulle said, prove useful as the focus grows on precision medicine, in which treatments are more closely tailored to the individual, such as because of a person’s genetic makeup.
“Data from the study is putting the foundation towards better use of precision medicine and a healthier society,” he said.