x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Bone disease risk for 1 in 4 residents

Doctors warn that a lack of exercise and exposure to sunlight in the UAE is contributing to the risk of osteoporosis, the brittle-bone disease.

DUBAI // A lack of exercise, poor diets and too little exposure to sunlight have put many UAE residents in danger of developing osteoporosis, health experts from across the Middle East and North Africa warned yesterday.

Nearly one in four people in the UAE has low bone density, or osteopenia, and is in danger of having osteoporosis, which makes bones brittle and can lead to hip fractures, the experts said, citing a recent study.

The warnings follow World Osteoporosis Day, which was recognised on Thursday. The experts were attending the first Middle East and Africa Osteoporosis Meeting at the weekend.

"Some people think we don't have osteoporosis because we have good food, we have plenty of sunshine, and we have a young generation," said Dr Abdul Rahim Al Suhaili, the vice chairman of the Emirates Osteoporosis Society.

Despite these favourable conditions, he said, the UAE is catching up with Europe in terms of the number of people who suffer from the disease.

The last study carried out by the International Osteoporosis Foundation, in 2000, revealed that there were approximately four million new fractures recorded in Europe caused by osteoporosis.

Ghada El Hajj Fuleihan, a professor of medicine at the American University of Beirut, said many people ignore the severity of osteoporosis. "Osteoporosis is a serious and costly disease," she said.

A recent study at a large Abu Dhabi hospital discovered that almost one quarter of the 1,825 people who participated were found to have osteopenia, the precursor to osteoporosis. Only 2.4 per cent were found to have osteoporosis, the study discovered.

Further research at the hospital revealed that there were 2.25 hip fractures caused by osteoporosis per 1,000 people in the Emirates. Hip fractures were among the most common breakages caused by the disease.

While the figures were not alarming, a previous, unrelated study discovered that almost 80 per cent of the local population in the UAE has a vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D, which is produced by sunlight and is found in milk, strengthens bones.

A lack of research and support also needs to be addressed, the study determined.

There are no proper statistics for the number of people in the UAE with the disease, nor is there a hip fracture registry, Dr Al Suhaili said.

Osteoporosis needs to be treated with more urgency, he said.

"So far, we are convinced 100 per cent that the number one reason is low vitamin D in most of the people, but particularly UAE [Emirati] women," he said.

Beyond that, he blamed a combination of the culture, eating habits, and the hot weather, which keeps people away from direct sunlight.

"People don't drink that much milk, and their life [is spent] inside closed areas like shopping centres, or at work. Everything is indoor."

Dr Al Suhaili said other factors such as the traditional clothing worn by Arab women, which blocks sunlight, their tendency to have children in quick succession without letting their bodies recover, cars with tinted windows, and a lack of exercise contribute to the disease.

To combat the problem, health authorities need to target young people, he said.

Amnah Ahmed Mohammed, a 68-year-old retired nurse, was diagnosed with osteoporosis four years ago after finding that it had become a challenge to move. "I started feeling difficulty when I was trying to walk, especially on my left hip," the Emirati grandmother said.

An MRI scan at a hospital revealed the problem, she said. Now that she has adapted to her condition, which sometimes forces her to rely on a wheelchair, she said it is vital that her children and grandchildren know how to look after their bodies.

"I'm always guiding them, and advising them not to eat unhealthy food, especially anything which is fried. This is not healthy or beneficial. I also always advise them to be active and to exercise," she said.

zalhassani@thenational.ae