Since the Health Authority Abu Dhabi (HAAD) launched its Weqaya screening programme three years ago, one of its main findings has been that many Emiratis are obese and have diabetes.
Both conditions can require lifelong treatment and have a severe and limiting effect on a patient’s quality of life and ability to contribute to their community.
Unless something is done, such lifestyle diseases could become a major drain on the country’s resources and potential.
Good public health is as important to national welfare as prosperity, security, and environmental vibrancy.
After all, what is the use of a community’s energy savings, natural preservation and efficient technologies if the health of residents is poor, or comes at a high cost to society and the environment?
That is why Abu Dhabi has acknowledged that the goal of sustainable living is to provide the highest quality of life, while meeting ecological, societal and economic needs – which then must include health.
Masdar Institute, in its role as Abu Dhabi’s research university focused on sustainability, is now planning to help use that Weqaya data to better understand and aid the population and contribute to the goal of “sustainable health” – not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, but the notion of sustaining a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.
As an assistant professor in the Masdar Institute’s Engineering Systems and Management programme, I am leading research that aims to use the data to computationally understand not only the biological factors, but also the social and environmental factors that affect residents’ health and their risk of diabetes and obesity.
By adding to our understanding of how diabetes develops in an individual and group or in a given location with certain social factors, we can work to prevent its spread.
Currently the Weqaya data shows high rates of diabetes – nearly one in five Emiratis – and far higher percentages of the population having pre-diabetic conditions, which can develop into the full-blown disease if left untreated.
Uncontrolled diabetes can cause loss of vision, damage to the nerves, kidneys, blood vessels, and increased risk of heart attack.
It is estimated that diabetes can reduce life expectancy by up to 10 years.
More than a third of those surveyed were also found to be obese, while a similar number are overweight.
So the need for intervention is severe and pressing. Intervening in an Abu Dhabi resident’s development from a healthy individual to an obese or diabetic one could save major cost and difficulty – for the individual, their community and the emirate overall.
Our research also aims to identify the biological and behavioural factors that contribute to this epidemic. By pinpointing those, HAAD’s public health division will be able to target its efforts toward individuals, groups, families, etc, in a more meaningful way.
The goal of that area of research is to assess the importance of networks, especially social family networks of obesity and diabetes in the UAE population, which can then be used to prepare the approaches for intervention (ie individual-based, family-based, work-focused, peer-to-peer interventions).
By knowing who influences health choices, and how, health authorities will be better equipped to mitigate the spread of lifestyle disease.
We can also help individuals understand their personal data, empowering them to care for their own health and well-being.
Additionally, understanding the biological changes that occur in conditions like diabetes can help doctors know the “red flags” to look for in their patients, which can then be targeted with the most useful kinds of interventions.
We are also hoping to identify social and physical situations that could tell us when an intervention is appropriate, even when a patient is not in the clinic.
That way, we can help HAAD design the kind of incentives and interventions that can help people make the right sort of changes to prevent development of disease and more importantly remain healthy.
With these and other research projects, Masdar Institute hopes to help Emiratis live healthy and sustainable lives.
A country’s future, after all, can only be as bright as the minds and as sound as the bodies of those who call it home.
Dr. Inas Khayyal is an assistant professor of engineering systems and management at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.