Life expectancy rises in Arab countries but challenges remain, health map reveals

Experts warn that despite improvements, the rising prevalence of heart disease. diet-related risk factors and traffic fatalities threatened the progress made from 1990 to 2010

Dr Mokdad criticised residents’ sedentary lifestyles and said the diet of many was becoming “worse and worse”. Fatima Al Marzouqi / The National
Powered by automated translation

DUBAI // Although people in Arab countries are living longer, chronic diseases, depression and road deaths are rising.

These were just a few of the findings in one of the most detailed health maps ever produced on the 22 countries in the Arab world.

In the report, taken from statistics over the past 20 years and revealed on Wednesday at the Arab Health Congress, experts warned that while life expectancy has increased, the rising prevalence of heart disease, diet-related risk factors and road traffic fatalities threatened the progress of the Arab world.

Dr Ali Mokdad, from the University of Washington in the United States and lead author of the study, said: “As a researcher, I see both the incredible progress being made in the health of people in the Arab world and the storm clouds on the horizon.”

Dr Mokdad, director of Middle Eastern initiatives at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the university, went on: “In 1990, premature death and disability was caused by communicable, newborn, nutritional and maternal disorders.

“If you fast forward to 2010 you see a major reduction in mortality, and we are living longer in the Arab world.”

However, health problems from non-communicable diseases, including heart disease, mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, and musculoskeletal disorders have increased, and a worrying trend of major depressive disorders among women is a particular area for concern, he said.

In 2010 major depressive disorders were the top cause of poor health for women.

Lifestyle disorders linked to a poor diet, high blood pressure and being overweight also showed an increase, while dietary risks were the leading risk factors for death in all of the region’s high-income countries, including the UAE.

"Unfortunately our diet is getting worse and worse," said Dr Mokdad. This goes hand in hand with a sedentary lifestyle, he said.

With an increase on vehicle use, accidents on the region’s roads reflected an increasing cause of injuries and deaths in the Arab world.

In high-income countries, road accidents accounted for the second-highest causes of death, with fire-related injuries, drowning, falls, and self-harm ranking 16th, 19th, 20th and 25th respectively.

Of the 10 leading causes of health loss (combining both premature death and years lived with disability) across the Arab Health from 1990 to 2010, lower respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, remained the first, while ischemic heart disease, the most common type, rose to second.

Major depressive disorders rose from eighth to fifth place, and low back pain, which was not among the top causes of health loss in 1990, was ranked seventh in 2010.

The rise of non-communicable disease in the Arab world mirrors similar changes in the US, western Europe and Canada.

By 2010, a transformation in leading risk factors for disease burdens also took place, with dietary risks, high blood pressure and high body mass index moving up in the rankings to become the top three.

Dr Mokdad said he hoped lessons could be learnt from the study and the road map for health in the Arab world was desperately needed.

“We have a long way to go,” he said. “I want countries to take the data and use it for planning policies and data. We should all share lessons – both success and failures.

“Our hope is that the research will allow countries to better develop and implement programmes to maximise their recourses.”

The findings are from “The state of health in the Arab world, 1990–2010: an analysis of the burden of diseases, injuries and risk factors” and were revealed during the Big Data conference.

The study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The four-day Arab Health Congress concludes on Thursday.