By Manal Ismail
Researchers at UAE University studied 1,018 students age 12 to 18, measuring their cholesterol levels and blood pressure as well as height and weight. Just over half of the sample were Emirati.
They were categorised by their body mass index (BMI) – weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in metres – as normal/underweight (BMI under 24.9), overweight (25-29.9) or obese (over 30).
While a similar number of Emiratis and expatriates were overweight (22 per cent and 20 per cent respectively), far more Emiratis were obese – 18 per cent against 8 per cent of expatriates.
The problem was acute among Emirati boys, 45 per cent of whom were obese or overweight.
That, said Dr Syed Shah, author of the study and associate professor of community medicine at UAE University, was partly down to lifestyle. “Boys make more frequent trips to fast-food restaurants and have longer spans of physical inactivity,” he said, adding that research was needed into why obesity was more prevalent in particular groups.
He found a connection with some of the most important “risk factors” for heart disease, the various measures of blood cholesterol.
More than half those tested had low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), a “good” type of cholesterol that provides immunity against heart disease, and nearly a quarter had high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL).
Only six per cent of students had high levels of triglyceride (TG) however, with 11 per cent borderline. And while only 7 per cent had a high total cholesterol level, a further quarter were borderline.
Those risk factors were strongly linked with weight. Twenty-nine per cent of students who were obese had at least two of the four abnormal cholesterol levels.
Dr Shah said the results were alarming. “Youth are in harm’s way with rising obesity,” he said. “Heart disease, hypertension and diabetes … these used to be problems only seen in the higher age groups and now they’re even appearing in children.”
The study also found that nearly 30 per cent of obese children had elevated blood pressure, compared with 20 per cent of overweight children and 8 per cent of those with normal weight.
What was most striking, Dr Shah said, was that 42 per cent of obese children had metabolic syndrome – a precursor to diabetes and a risk factor for coronary artery disease and stroke.
He described cholesterol as the “main culprit” behind most health dangers associated with obesity.
“Cholesterol deposits in the blood increase over a period of time until the arteries are clogged,” the doctor said. “Most people wait until the symptoms appear, but at that point it’s too late.”
The findings indicate the need for a “national intervention,” Dr Shah said. “We need changes at a policy level and to bring attention to this from an early age.
“Social perceptions need to change. If people see a person working out outside, they start asking questions and view it as something strange. Exercise should be seen as a part of daily life.”
Doctors have warned that a killer combination of smoking, stress, junk food and a lack of exercise are leading to heart disease problems in the UAE 15 years younger than in people in the West.
The average age of heart disease patients in the US and the UK is between 55 and 60; in the UAE it is between 40 and 45, with doctors often seeing patients as young as 20.
“Most patients we see have elevated LDL levels as a result of the food they eat and low activity levels, it’s very common here,” said Dr Qazi Ahmed, a medical practitioner at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City.
Hala Abu Taha, a nutritionist at Right-Bite, said that while cholesterol problems were linked to genetics, that should not be used as an excuse.
The result of the next phase of the study, looking at the link between obesity in parents and their children, will be released next month.
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