Health Coronary disease is a worldwide killer but residents of the UAE should be especially careful.
Time to take heart
The Gulf States may be envied across the world for their year-round sun and glamorous lifestyle, but according to recent medical research, there is a downside. Living the high life over here could put you in line for an early death. In a study published this month, it was revealed that people with acute heart disease are dying five years earlier in the UAE than in other Gulf countries, at an average age of just 52.7 years. And, according to Dr Wael al Mahmeed, the head of the Division of Cardiology at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi, more research has shown that this worrying trend is not a one-off.
"We have also recently done two large studies which showed that the average age in the Emirates for a heart attack is around 50 years, compared to 65 years in the West," he says. "People in the Emirates suffer from heart disease at an earlier age because of their poor risk-factor profile. There is a high incidence of hypercholesterolaemia (high cholesterol), along with obesity (at around 50 per cent), a high incidence of smoking and a high incidence of high blood pressure.
"The rapid urbanisation and development from a nomadic lifestyle is also to blame, including the adoption of a western fast-food diet with lack of exercise." While it's not news that poor diet and a lack of regular exercise are bad for us, it is shocking to find out exactly how bad it could be. There is some good news, however. Simple lifestyle changes can lower your risk factor: eating healthily, exercising, monitoring blood pressure, stopping smoking and reducing stress.
Doctors agree that high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking and stress are the big problems that lead to a heart attack. Genetic factors (whether members of your close family have had heart disease) and diabetes (particularly if brought on through obesity) are also relevant. While this may sound simple, some lifestyle factors in the Gulf make it more difficult. Mahmeed identifies specific problems such as rich food, high temperatures which prevent people from walking regularly, and the low cost of cigarettes as prime examples.
"Awareness is also very poor. Patients all look for a magic bullet to treat these risk factors rather than changing their lifestyles," he says. If you need another call to action, heart attacks are not limited to overweight male executives in their 60s any more. Dr R Anil Kumar of Belhoul Speciality Hospital in Dubai, has recently been working with the World Heart Federation to increase awareness about heart disease within the Emirates.
"Heart disease is affecting the younger individuals here," he said. "I have patients in their third and fourth decades of life presenting with heart attacks." He believes that the high incidence of smoking, hypertension and diabetes in the younger population of the UAE is responsible for this. And women beware, too. This is a problem that can affect you, especially post-menopause, as your cholesterol levels will be higher than men's. Lack of exercise makes cardiovascular disease the biggest killer of women worldwide, accounting for third of all deaths.
Dr Pradeep Kumar Gupta, a consultant cardiologist in Ras al Khaimah, has been working with the World Heart Federation to promote awareness of the problem. "Our dietary advice is: avoid junk food and sugary beverages. Eat less saturated fat. Avoid red meat and eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, fish and nuts," he says. "And stop smoking. You should do 30 minutes of daily exercise at moderate intensity, every day of the week if possible."
Many people aren't aware of the benefits of exercise, he adds, and those most at risk may find it hard to do, especially given that osteoarthritis of the knees is very common in obese patients. Catch it before it gets too bad seems to be the motto and, if you're having problems, seek help. Much of this advice is common sense. The combination of a good diet and regular exercise is clearly good for the heart and has been proven to help fight another key factor in cardiovascular disease: stress. This has been identified as one of the core problems in the UAE.
Kumar says: "Hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol are all lifestyle-related conditions and can be prevented to a great extent by leading a healthy lifestyle, but stress management is a different field. I for one believe that each person is exposed to a different set of circumstances and he or she should try to identify the stress-causing factors." So, in this instance, you need to find an individual solution to your own individual problem - but doctors can help you get there.
Avoiding stress might be harder than avoiding junk food, but there is one thing that you can do to manage your risk that is very straightforward. "If you only do one thing right now to help reduce your risk of heart disease, do an assessment of your risk factors for heart disease and control them at the earliest opportunity," says Kumar. For many, especially people who are concerned that their unhealthy lifestyles could affect their risk, this may be an intimidating prospect. But it could be a first step on the road to a healthier heart.