An “alarming” number of young patients in the UAE are suffering heart attacks and are being diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, medical professionals say, with the onset of the illness being noticed in people about 10-15 years earlier here than in other parts of the world.
Ahead of World Heart Day on Friday, doctors have cautioned that poor lifestyle choices – including unhealthy diet, smoking, and a lack of exercise and sleep – have seen an increasing number of patients under 50 complain of heart ailments.
Speaking to Al Arabiya English, medical director at Aviv Clinics Dubai, Dr Zemer Wang, said: “In the UAE, the escalating prevalence of heart disease, notably the alarming surge in heart attacks among young individuals, underscores the critical importance of proactive prevention.”
The World Heart Federation reveals that cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in the Middle East and North Africa region and is responsible for more than one-third of all deaths, approximately 1.4 million people, every year.
“The statistics paint a sad picture,” said Dr Wang. “It is no longer uncommon to witness individuals under 50 suffering from heart attacks, a concerning trend that hospitals across the UAE are grappling with,” he added.
“This shift emphasizes the urgency of addressing heart disease as a top-tier public health priority and acknowledging its indiscriminate reach.”
The doctor said a “striking concern” is the onset of coronary heart diseases (CHDs) in the UAE, occurring 10-15 years earlier than in Western countries.
“This situation is further underscored by data from the Ministry of Health and Prevention, indicating a death rate of approximately 70-80 per 100,000 individuals due to heart disease in recent years,” Dr Wang said.
“While nearly 40 percent of adults in the UAE are at risk of Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease (ASCVD), even more disconcerting is the fact that many individuals remain oblivious to this risk until they face severe conditions like heart attacks or strokes. ASCVD, characterized by arterial plaque buildup, often advances silently, unnoticed, until it reaches a critical stage,” he explained.
Dr Wang said though prevention is “our most potent weapon” to counter the crisis, equally crucial is to recognize that prevention doesn’t end with awareness campaigns and lifestyle changes.
“Early diagnosis and appropriate before/after-care are pivotal in achieving long-term and sustained health and recovery,” he said.
Women also at risk
Adding to this urgency is women’s susceptibility to heart disease, which has long been seen as a predominantly male affliction, said Dr Wang.
“The unique risk factors that affect women, such as hormonal changes during menopause and pregnancy, increase their vulnerability to heart disease. This underscores the need for gender-specific awareness and tailored prevention strategies,” he further explained.
Dr Wang said the COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns about heart health, with evidence linking it to increased heart disease rates during infection and long-term complications afterward. Long COVID-19 is also believed to have significantly impacted heart health, causing blood clots, irregular heartbeats, heart attacks, and high blood pressure, even among younger individuals.
“To address this, healthcare systems should prioritize preventive care, early diagnosis and comprehensive support, including rehabilitation and lifestyle counseling,” the doctor said.
“Recognizing and addressing COVID-19’s impact on heart health is now crucial in healthcare planning.”
Consultant interventional cardiologist at NMC Royal Hospital, Abu Dhabi, Dr. Carl B. Kapadia, told Al Arabiya English that the UAE is experiencing a “disproportionate burden of heart disease in the world.”
“While ischaemic heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death worldwide, constituting 16 percent of all deaths, in the UAE, it accounts for over 52 percent of deaths among men and 21 percent among women,” said the doctor, citing World Health Organization 2023 data.
Dr Kapadia said risk factors include smoking, family history, poor diet, elevated stress, sedentary lifestyle, obesity, and genetics.
“These factors ultimately result in high blood pressure, cholesterol and plaque accumulation in major blood vessels, which increase the risk of a heart attack and cardiac arrest.”
The doctor said the four risk factors of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity have been responsible for more than half of all deaths in the UAE over the last 20 years, citing the study ‘Measuring the Burden of Disease in the United Arab Emirates, 1990 – 2019: A Road to Future’, published in the New Emirates Medical Journal.
Dr Kapadia said it is also critical to address the mistaken belief that heart disease is more prevalent among men.
“UAE women with high cholesterol and blood pressure are particularly at risk.” he said. “Further, genetic factors render certain ethnicities more susceptible to developing heart disease.”
According to Dr. Kapadia, while the classic symptoms of a heart attack include severe left-sided chest pressure that radiates to the neck/jaw/arm, breathlessness, nausea, and sweating, it is not always the case.
“The symptoms can sometimes be vague and even suggestive of gastrointestinal problems such as indigestion and acidity, and this sudden onset of vague symptoms is more common among women who experience heart attacks,” he said.
Luckily, said Dr Kapadia, most risk factors are modifiable and lifestyle changes, including moderate aerobic exercise and a healthy diet, can help regulate body weight and cholesterol/blood pressure, which can help reduce the risk of developing a heart disease. For smokers, cessation is critical, said the doctor.
“Annual check-ups with a family doctor or cardiologist can help develop a risk profile for each patient so that they may monitor and modify their risk factors with the guidance of their physician. By committing to even small lifestyle changes, each individual increases their chance to live a longer, healthier life.”
Cardiologist at Prime Medical Center, Rahmania Mall, Dr Mohamed al-Gizy, also sounded the alarm bell about the threat of cardiovascular disease in the UAE. “It is one of life’s greatest mysteries how a fist-sized organ is responsible for the entire human body’s functioning,” he told Al Arabiya English.
“The human heart is essentially known as an organ that pumps blood throughout the body, which in turn is how the body receives oxygen and nutrients. This is why heart-related issues are life-threatening,” he explained.
He said cardiovascular disease and risk factors can be divided into modifiable and non-modifiable factors.
“Non-modifiable factors are not in your control. For example, cardiovascular risks resulting from aging are out of your control. Family history and gender are the other non-modifiable factors,” he said.
However, the modifiable factors can be controlled. “For example, you can choose to eat better, exercise regularly, avoid tobacco, etc. Such activities will improve your heart’s health,” he explained.
“Patients in the UAE show signs of heart disease a decade earlier than those in other parts of the world because of genetic factors, lifestyle issues, as well as the prevalence of diabetes and hypertension, which is higher in the younger generation,” Dr al-Gizy said.
Some common symptoms of heart failure include difficulty in breathing, fatigue and lack of energy, swellings on the ankles, nonspecific chest pain, and, in some cases, palpitations.
The doctor advised: “Start your day on the right note. Always have breakfast as nutritious as possible by including fresh fruit, lean proteins (eggs, yogurt, low-fat dairy), and complex whole grains. Curb sugar intake. A few natural and high-quality sweeteners (honey, dark chocolate) are better than refined, processed sweets. Get active; exercise at least 30 minutes daily, five days a week. Maintain a healthy weight; keep body mass index (BMI) under control, quit smoking and stay away from passive smoking, too. Lastly, control your cholesterol, manage stress and make sure to get quality sleep.”