UAE residents are receiving a diagnosis of diabetes between 11 and 19 years earlier than the worldwide average, figures from a health organisation show.
The highest population of diabetics falls into the 40 to 44-year-old range, compared with the global average of 55 to 59, the International Diabetic Federation (IDF) says.
"The younger distribution is a reflection of a rapidly developing epidemic where younger and younger people are experiencing radical changes in lifestyle - poor diet and low physical activity," said Leonor Guariguata, an IDF biostatistician.
"These combined with a low awareness of diabetes risk will inevitably lead to a rapid pace of development for the disease."
The Diabetes 2012 Atlas Update puts the UAE 11th globally for the disease and fifth regionally. Almost 19 per cent of the population has it.
Kuwait has the highest rate at 23.9 per cent, followed by Saudi Arabia at 23.4, Qatar 23.3, and Bahrain 22.4.
The updated figures were released ahead of World Diabetes Day, which is today.
They show there are 827,000 people between the ages of 20 and 79 with diabetes in the UAE. Of those, 322,000 are undiagnosed, nearly 39 per cent of those who have the disease.
The rate at which younger diabetics are emerging is alarming, experts say.
"Studies this year have shown diabetes that develops in adolescence progresses more rapidly and is more difficult to treat, meaning unless prevention starts early the situation will only get worse," Ms Guariguata said.
Dr Abdul Jabbar, an endocrinologist at Medcare Hospital, said he was starting to see more diabetes patients aged between 20 and 45.
"Before, it mostly appeared in people aged 50 and over," he said. "Now I'm beginning to see many younger patients."
Salah Al Badawi, director of the National Project for Control of Diabetes at the Ministry of Health, said the figures reflected an ongoing trend.
"It's the result of the rapid urbanisation that took over in most of the countries in the region, which [exposed] people in the population to fast food and made them prone to obesity," Mr Al Badawi said.
"People in the region don't eat healthily, they smoke and they lack physical activity. All these are risk factors to diabetes."
In 2009, the ministry launched a 10-year strategy to reduce diabetes in the country. This included primary prevention, timely diagnosis, access to quality treatment and strengthening tertiary care.
That diabetes is more prevalent in certain races and ethnicities is also a contributing factor, said Jesper Hoiland, global head of emerging markets for Novo Nordisk, a healthcare company based in Denmark that focuses on care for diabetics.
"We are seeing many people in the Middle East developing diabetes when they have a BMI [body mass index] of perhaps 23 to 25," Mr Hoiland said. "In the western world it usually appears when BMI is higher, perhaps around 27 to 30.
The UAE spends an average of Dh6,500 on each person with diabetes, the IDF says.
"The UAE has one of the lowest spending in the region and especially relative to the number of people with diabetes," Ms Guariguata said.
The update estimated diabetes will have killed 357,000 people in the region by the end of the year, compared with 280,000 last year.
By the end of this year, 34 million people in the region will have it.
* This article has been corrected since it was published. A previous version of the article overstated that there are 1 million diabetics in the country.