How to avoid the capital’s biggest killers?

Learn what to look out for and what changes you need to make to avoid these serious illnesses that have become prevalent in the capital

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We don’t mean to sound ominous, but you should never take your health for granted, because even the healthiest among us can be struck down by illness.

Being aware of any changes in your body, and not being afraid to seek medical assistance could save your life. After all, the earlier you detect a serious illness, the more likely you are to make a full recovery.

Luckily in Abu Dhabi, many of us receive health insurance from our employers, which helps to ease the burden, but having good health coverage won’t make you invincible.

So what are the biggest threats in Abu Dhabi?

In focus

Here in the UAE, the average life expectancy is 77.1 years (76.4 for males and 78.6 for females), which is above the world average of 71.4 years.

However, statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) show that 498 out of every 100,000 people in the UAE died of non-communicable diseases in 2015 – that’s roughly one in every 200 people dying of a disease that has progressed slowly over a long period of time.

Many of the diseases and illnesses that are common in Abu Dhabi are heavily influenced by our lifestyle choices, including diet, lack of physical activity and smoking.

We speak to healthcare professionals to find out what diseases and illnesses are most prevalent in the capital and what we can do to reduce our risk.

Cardiovascular disease

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Should I be concerned?

According to a report by WHO, up to 50 percent of people with cardiovascular diseases in the Gulf die before the age of 60, mainly due to poor diet and lack of exercise.

In addition, a report from the Dubai Health Authority showed that nearly 37 percent of
Emiratis in the UAE between the ages of 35 and 70 suffer from hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure), which can lead to serious cardiovascular illnesses.   

“Cardiovascular diseases can lead to various heart complications like heart failure, heart attack, heart stroke, peripheral artery disease or sudden cardiac arrest,” explains Dr Jairam K Aithal, consultant of cardiovascular disease at Burjeel Hospital.

What to look out for…

“The most common symptoms are chest pain, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, sweating, nausea and upper body discomfort in one or both arms, the neck, jaw or stomach,” says Dr Jairam.

“All people aged over 40 should have a cardiovascular health risk assessment.”

How can I reduce my risk?

“The cause of most cardiovascular diseases is a build-up of atheroma, a fatty deposit within the inside lining of arteries,” Dr Jairam continues.

“Improving your lifestyle definitely helps in reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

“This includes not smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, choosing healthy foods, reducing your salt intake, increasing physical activity and maintaining a stress-free life.

“In addition to leading a healthy lifestyle, medical intervention and clinical treatment are equally important.

“Certain medicines will be required to lower risk factors and for treatment of primary and secondary coronary problems. That is why it is important to always consult with your doctor.”

Cancer

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Should I be concerned?

According to WHO, the number of cancer diagnoses in the Middle East is projected to double in the next two decades. What’s more, cancer caused 13.5 percent of all deaths in Abu Dhabi in 2015, according to the Abu Dhabi – Health Authority (HAAD).

With over 200 types of cancer affecting almost all parts of the body, everyone is at risk of developing the illness in their lifetime.

In men, lung cancer is the most common type followed by prostate and colorectal, while for women it’s breast cancer, followed by lung and cervical.

What to look out for…

“Cancer can often go undetected, especially if it doesn’t show any obvious symptoms,” explains Dr Norbert W Dreier, consultant of oncology at Burjeel Hospital. “Hence, it is imperative that an oncologist is consulted if you have symptoms including unexplained weight loss, recurring fevers, constant fatigue, headaches, pains, changes in skin tone, moles, lumps or growths in parts of the body.”

How can I reduce my risk?

“Common causes include genetic factors and lifestyle factors such as smoking, diet and lack of physical activity,” continues Dr Norbert.

“However, different types of viral infections and environmental factors such
as exposure to chemicals, the sun and radiation can also be the cause.

“Living an active and healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced, antioxidant-rich diet and exercise is the best regimen to prevent cancer.

“Regular health screenings are also a good measure to keep cancer at bay.”

Obesity

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Should I be concerned?

Obesity is a prevalent issue in the UAE, as a whopping 36 percent of children are considered obese, according to WHO.

In addition, a study by the University of Washington showed that 66 percent of men and 60 percent of women in the UAE are obese, drastically increasing people’s risk of illnesses as a direct result.

What to look out for…

“There are a lot of factors that can lead to obesity,” says Norlyn Torrena, clinical dietician at Burjeel Hospital.

“Unhealthy eating habits, over-eating, a sedentary lifestyle, family history, genetics and lack of physical activity all contribute to obesity.

“The introduction of fast-paced technology, which people think makes our lives easier, also makes people vulnerable.

“People become inactive and with one call to a fast food outlet – this is one cause of rising obesity in this country.   

“It is one of the leading causes of preventable death and can lead to almost 100 medical problems like diabetes, hypertension, breathing problems such as sleep apnoea and so much more.”

How can I reduce my risk?

“Reducing the quantity and improving the quality of your food gradually helps in reducing weight,” Norlyn says.

“Focus on eating healthy, balanced and nutritious meals that are high in fibre and low in fat, and follow a regular exercise regime.”

Anaemia

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Should I be concerned?

Anaemia is a condition that develops when your blood lacks enough healthy red blood cells or when haemoglobin levels are lower than normal.

These cells are essential for carrying oxygen around the body and a lack of oxygen can lead to a series of serious problems.

According to WHO, anaemia affects 1.6 billion people around the world – that’s
roughly a quarter of the entire global population.

On a local level, HAAD statistics show that 35 percent of deaths in 2015 were due to diseases of the circulatory system.

Furthermore, other studies conducted in the UAE have shown that nearly 40 percent of the population suffers from a form of blood disorder.

What to look out for…

“Some patients with anaemia have no symptoms,” explains Norlyn.

“Those who have symptoms may feel tired, and fatigue occurs because the organs aren’t getting what they need to function properly.

“Pregnant women with folate-deficiency anaemia (lack of vitamin B) may be more likely to experience complications, such as premature birth,” adds Norlyn.

“Anaemia can also lead to a rapid or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) because when you’re anaemic your heart must pump more blood to compensate for the lack of oxygen in the blood, which can lead to an enlarged heart or heart failure.

“Also, some types of hereditary anaemia, such as sickle cell anaemia, may present a number of lifelong health problems.”

How can I reduce my risk?

“Nutritional deficiencies, especially in Vitamin B12 or folate, are curable with the help of a healthy and balanced diet.

“If you are vegetarian, take it from the best sources (soy beans, white beans, kidney beans, lentils, peanut butter and other legumes), which are best absorbed when taken with tropical fruits high in vitamin C.

“Nutritional supplements and some medication can also help to keep the blood counts at an acceptable level.

Diabetes

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Should I be concerned?

Diabetes is a condition in which your body cannot produce or use insulin properly. Insulin turns sugar into an energy source, and those with diabetes can suffer from high blood sugar levels which can damage organs, blood vessels and nerves.

In Type 1, the body produces no, or too little, insulin. The more common Type 2 occurs when the body cannot properly use insulin, causing sugar to build up in the blood.

In MENA, more than 35.4 million people are affected, with the number expected to rise to 72.1 million by 2040.

“These numbers are indicative of the growing incidence of the disease, which is also being seen increasingly in younger patients due to the rise of obesity, stress and a sedentary lifestyle,” says Dr Job Simon, consultant of endocrinology at Burjeel Hospital.

What to look out for…

“Symptoms include frequent urination, excessive thirst, intense hunger, rapid weight gain or unusual weight loss, increased fatigue and blurred vision, among other issues,” Dr Job explains.

How can I reduce my risk?

“There are several factors that increase the risk of developing diabetes, such as family history, obesity, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol and diets that include sweets and fruit juice.

“Diabetes is serious because it increases the risk of developing several other complications ranging from cardiovascular disease to blindness and kidney disease to amputation of the lower limbs.

“However, diabetes can be controlled by medication and changing your lifestyle by eating healthily and implementing physical activities in your daily routine.

“It’s vitally important that we follow a healthy lifestyle which includes regular physical activity and a healthy diet.”

Osteoporosis

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Should I be concerned?

Osteoporosis is a condition where bones become weaker, bone density reduces and bones become more porous and fragile, making them more susceptible to breaking and cracking.

A recent study in the UAE on 1,825 healthy individuals with an average age of 42, showed that 24 percent had osteopenia (decreased bone density) and 2.5 percent had osteoporosis.

Furthermore, a 2012 study on women in the UAE, with a mean age of 44, found that 22 percent suffered from osteoporosis and the deficiency of vitamin D – vital for bone health – could be as high as 90 percent.

What to look out for…

“You can have osteoporosis and not even know about it as there are typically no symptoms in the early stages of bone loss,” explains Dr Raul Barrios, orthopaedic surgeon at
Burjeel Hospital.

“But once your bones have been weakened by osteoporosis, you might notice symptoms such as back pain caused by a fractured or collapsed vertebra, loss of height over time, a stooped posture and a bone fracture that occurs much more easily than expected.”

How can I reduce my risk?

“Age is one of the main risk factors,” continues Dr Raul.

“Those over 65 years of age are at particular risk. Other factors include family history, lifestyle and gender, as osteoporosis affects more women than men.

“The most common cause, in general, is oestrogen deficiency after menopause in women.”

While females are more likely to suffer from the illness, it can also affect men. However there are a number of measures you can take to reduce your chances of developing osteoporosis.

“Age, gender, genetics and gender are factors that simply can’t be altered,” adds Dr Raul.

“On the other hand you can reduce alcohol consumption, stop smoking, improve your diet and fitness, and improve your calcium and vitamin D intake.

“Ultimately, the best way to prevent, diagnose and treat osteoporosis is to seek a medical assessment before fractures occur.”

Digestive illness

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Should I be concerned?

Digestive illnesses are a significant area of concern in Abu Dhabi as bowel cancer is the second most common cancer in
the emirate.

Alarmingly, approximately one in 20 adults will develop bowel cancer during their lifetime, but a large number of less-serious digestive issues
are common among patients in the capital.

What to look out for…

“Common digestive diseases include constipation, acid reflux, gallstones, irritable bowel syndrome and problems like abscesses, fissures, fistulas and haemorrhoids,” explains Dr Matthew Tytherleigh, consultant in general and colorectal surgery at Burjeel Hospital.

“These problems are extremely common in Abu Dhabi. Symptoms may include abdominal pain, rectal pain, change in bowel habit, rectal bleeding, acid reflux, anaemia and unexplained weight loss.

“Any of the above symptoms should warrant an urgent appointment with a general or colorectal surgeon.”

How can I reduce my risk?

“Many of these issues are due to constipation and poor bowel habit,” continues Dr Matthew.

“For some digestive problems, such as bowel cancer, gallstones or inflammatory bowel disease, there is little that can be done to prevent them.

“For many others, however, eating a healthy, high-fibre diet and avoiding processed food helps to prevent constipation and all the problems associated with it.

“While it’s important to eat right, it’s equally important to stay well hydrated. Adults should be drinking two to three litres a day.

“In addition, sitting on the toilet should be limited to three to four minutes only and definitely don’t use mobile phones, iPads or books in the bathroom.”

Don’t delay, see a doctor

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If you have any of the symptoms mentioned in this article or are concerned about your health, the first thing you should do is book an appointment with your doctor.

You can’t put a price on good health and even if your insurance means you have to part with money to access medical advice, it’s worth it for peace of mind alone.

Need to know 

Health Authority Abu Dhabi (HAAD) – 02 449 3333, haad.ae

Burjeel Hospital – 02 508 5555, burjeel.com

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