NYU Abu Dhabi is leading a collaborative initiative to study long-term health trends in the UAE. Called the UAE Healthy Future Study, the project will track the health and lifestyle of Emiratis over the course of their lifetime, and it may offer insights into why the Emirati population has such a high rate of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The project is one of the first of its kind in the Arab world.
“We’ve known for a long time that diabetes and heart disease are common in the UAE, but the reasons for this have not been studied previously,” said Raghib Ali, director of the Public Health Research Center at NYUAD.
“If you look at the main risk factors, particularly in terms of diet and level of physical activity, the UAE is not all that different from the United States. But the rate of diabetes is double,” Ali said.
Ali suggested two reasons why this may be. The local population could be more genetically predisposed to diabetes than other groups. A more complex hypothesis is that the high rate of disease may be due to so called epigenetic factors, which consider the way the environment affects the expression of a person’s genes, without changing the genetic code itself.
Gene expression is influenced throughout a person's life by the environment in which they live, including the nine months spent in their mother's womb. “The UAE is unusual in that two generations ago, it was much less developed,” Ali explained.
We’re going to continue recruitment for a couple years, and we should have our first data in three or four years.
“So the genes of babies who were born at that time were programmed to deal with a low-food environment.” But these children were then born into a rapidly developing society where food became abundant.
It’s possible that a person who is genetically primed to live in a low-food environment, but is then born into an environment where food is abundant, could suffer from diseases like obesity and diabetes. UAE Healthy Future will provide data to either support or refute this hypothesis and may identify risk factors that could trigger these diseases in the local population.
Ali and his colleagues are currently recruiting participants for the study. The researchers will collect information about participants’ diet, exercise habits, and body composition, among other things.
“Any Emirati can take part,” he said. “We’re going to continue recruitment for a couple years, and we should have our first data in three or four years."
And this data may prove to be extremely useful in fighting complex diseases in the UAE and improving the health of the Emirati population.
The project is a collaboration with Abu Dhabi Blood Bank, Abu Dhabi Health Services, Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, United Arab Emirates University, Zayed Military Hospital, and Zayed University.