ABU DHABI // Doctors want 20,000 Emirati volunteers to help them better understand the UAE’s high rate of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
The long-term Healthy Future Study by New York University Abu Dhabi will be the country’s largest.
Volunteers will have physical tests and answer questions on lifestyle, genetics, and their workplaces and homes.
A report by Dr Raghib Ali at the university’s Public Health Research Centre found that a third of deaths in 2015 were linked to heart disease, of which diabetes is a major contributor.
“The study is the first that provides the opportunity to understand why rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease are so high,” Dr Ali said at the launch. “Based on potential outcomes, we are working towards finding ways to prevent these diseases.
“The UAE has one of the highest prevalences of heart disease in the Gulf.”
A Mexican study last year linked diabetes to a rise in deaths among those aged 30 to 69.
“This is what we fear is coming to the UAE,” Dr Ali said.
Obesity increases the risk of diabetes by 40 times, he said. Data from the International Diabetes Federation to mark World Diabetes Day in 2015 reported that one in five people, or 803,900, in the UAE were diabetics.
Emiratis can join the study by registering at the study assessment centres at the Abu Dhabi Blood Bank or Al Ain Regional Blood Bank.
They will be asked to complete a questionnaire, provide body measurements, and give blood, urine and saliva samples.
The volunteers will be observed over several years, with follow-up online questionnaires and clinic visits to explore how important risk factors such as lifestyle, genes and environment are causing obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Dr Ali said the study would help to identify and prevent the risk factors that lead to diabetes, whether they are smoking, genetics, unhealthy eating lifestyles, lack of sleep or others.
“We don’t have any studies in the UAE, the region or the Arab world into how these receptors affect diabetes,” he said. “We rely on studies we get from the West, hence the importance of this study.”
Dr Maha Barakat, director general of the Abu Dhabi Health Authority, said: “This study, we hope, over the next few decades will start answering the questions that we have been asking for so long.
“Small studies for one or two years also won’t answer the question. This is a huge, concentrated effort. I hope the answers will be available in our lifetime but certainly it will be available in our children’s lifetime.”
Dr Amin Al Amiri, assistant undersecretary at the Ministry of Health, said it was likely that the study would grow to include expatriates, given that “80 per cent of the population is non-Emirati. I believe that we need to study the entire population, Emirati and non-Emirati”.
Maitha Al Memari, 20, an early volunteer who took part in the study in November along with five friends, said it was “a simple way to give back to the community”.
The NYUAD student said the process took about 45 minutes.
“Many have already signed up and we would like to understand why so many Emiratis have diabetes and are obese,” she said.