Survey in capital finds most residents think of themselves as being healthy but experts warn many are being unduly optimistic and are already developing serious health problems.
Population is 'unhealthier than it thinks'
ABU DHABI // A large majority of residents believe they are healthy, according to a study, but experts warn many are being unduly optimistic.
A survey of 1,014 residents as part of the 2011 Edelman Health Barometer found that 84 per cent of respondents believed they were in good or excellent health.
But figures from health authorities paint a less rosy picture. Health Authority - Abu Dhabi (Haad) statistics cited in the study show that the emirate has high rates of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Experts said many of those diseases did not have visible symptoms until their later stages, leading to an illusion of health for some residents.
"That's probably the single most important factor," said Dr Sabina Al Aidarous, a family medicine specialist at Dubai Healthcare City. "So people may be walking around with these problems, but are not aware that they have them."
That danger is magnified in the UAE, which has higher incidences of such "invisible" diseases. Only 14 per cent of respondents globally believed their health was excellent, compared with 32 per cent of Emiratis and 27 per cent of expatriates in the UAE.
Health authorities estimate that obesity affects nearly 33 per cent of men and 38 per cent of women in Abu Dhabi, while cardiovascular diseases account for nearly a quarter of deaths countrywide. Between 19 and 25 per cent of residents have diabetes.
Part of the problem, said Dr Fatima Al Maskari, the associate professor of community medicine at UAE University, was that residents did not go for regular screenings.
"Routine check-ups are not being done," she said. "For example, a person may not know they have diabetes or are at risk of developing the disease because they have not checked their blood sugar levels."
Jalal bin Thaneya, an Emirati who lives and works in Dubai, agreed that residents were not fully aware of health risks.
"Obviously, they are in denial," he said. "They think they are in good health, but, if I look around, I think maybe 75 per cent of the Emirati population [has issues]."
Only 58 per cent of Emiratis were willing to take responsibility for their own health, compared with 71 per cent of expatriates in the UAE and 79 per cent of respondents globally.
Experts said this was due to a difference in doctor-patient relationships.
"In the Middle East, this relationship is more paternalistic, where patients rely on the doctor to tell them what to do," Dr Al Aidarous said. "While in the West, the responsibility is distributed - the doctor informs the patient what illness he has, and then it is the patient's responsibility to take action."
Respondents said a lack of exercise and unhealthy diets were the top two barriers to improving health in the UAE.
Smoking and the use of tobacco products was perceived as the next biggest problem, but it was seen as less of a problem by those in the UAE - 21 per cent - than in the rest of the world - 30 per cent.
Dr Fatima Al Marzooqi, a health educator at the Ministry of Health, said that could be because people mistakenly thought smoking shisha was less dangerous than cigarettes. "Sometimes, if it's from your culture, you tend to accept it better than stuff imported."
Dr Al Aidarous said the value of healthy living needed to be taught from a very young age.
"It's much easier when attitudes are still forming, rather than when people older and everything is set in stone."
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