x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Planning must start now as the UAE population ages

The UAE is headed into unchartered territory, with the number of elderly people requiring health care set to soar.

One of the biggest challenges facing any country is ensuring the health of its citizens. The UAE has made great strides in this area in its short history, but – as The National reported yesterday – the health system is facing a new medical frontier. Doctors have said that the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease is expected to soar from 4,300 cases this year to 32,000 by 2030.

Worldwide, ­Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia affect more than 35 million people at an estimated annual cost of $604 billion (Dh2.2 trillion). The UAE has been somewhat insulated due to its relatively young average population. That, of course, will change as the years pass and today’s generation move on from working life and – thanks to medical advances and the provision of better health care – into very long retirements.

And dementia is just the tip of the iceberg. Its incidence around the world – and its expected growth in the UAE – is just one of the health consequences of an ageing population. Heart disease, cancer, arthritis, Parkinson’s, hearing loss and osteoporosis are among the many diseases that can present themselves as we age. As human life expectancy has increased, so has the demand for gerontologists, specialist nursing staff, aged-care facilities and associated infrastructure – and medical research into diseases affecting the elderly.

In the UAE, there will undoubtedly be extra demand on the health system as the population ages. There will also be implications for families, especially those who opt to care for their elderly members in the home. They will require strong support systems, from within the family network and from external health professionals, and access to accurate information about caring for the patient’s medical and emotional needs. In the case of dementia, early diagnosis will give both the patient and family time to adjust to the changes that will occur as the disease advances.

The high incidence of diabetes, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s and other conditions, is a particular challenge in the UAE. But there is also an opportunity for this country to be at the forefront of research into diseases that affect the elderly.

On all fronts, the key message is that planning must start now, for the authorities to put in place adequate infrastructure and specialist services, and for individuals to take responsibility for their own well-being and the health of their families.