Fight Diabetes With Prevention

Brian K. Kennedy, PhD
Kuwait Times

October 7, 2011  An epidemic of diabetes is assaulting the Middle East, a victim of its own success. Over the last 30 years, the Arabian Gulf people have gone from being fishermen and traders, with active lifestyles and nutritious diets, to a much more sedentary, fast food-focused society, thanks to the global appetite for their oil and natural gas.

Countries in the Gulf have invested generously in programs to combat diabetes, but their approaches have been flawed. As in the US, most of these efforts are targeted at treatment of existing cases, with very little allocated for prevention. A more proactive and assertive strategy focused on stopping the onset of diabetes is essential. Policy-makers in the Gulf should borrow a page from Cuba’s playbook on controlling lifestyle-related diseases.

Cuba, a poor country with a population of 11 million, has an almost identical life expectancy as that of the US – despite the reality that the US spends roughly thirty times more than Cuba on each citizen for health-related services.  Cuba, however, focuses on preventive medicine to maintain a healthy population, with an emphasis on health education and healthy diet. Children are taught from a young age the importance of a healthy diet, regular exercise, and overall fitness; that investment in health education has earned solid, measurable returns.

During a recent trip to the Arabian Gulf, I was repeatedly confronted with disturbing statistics:  in the Middle East alone, 9.2% of the population is believed to be affected--the highest regional incidence in the world; even more disturbingly, in Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE almost one in four residents are diabetic.  Unchecked, this figure is expected to rise to a third of the population in little over a decade – with severe economic and social consequences to young nations already facing serious health challenges.

Why is diabetes so much more prevalent in the Arabian Gulf than in the rest of the world? The Gulf has perhaps become a victim of its own wealth. Flush with oil and natural gas money, the last three decades have transformed the Gulf region into one of the world’s richest on a per capita basis.

As an observer, I found the number of fast food outlets in Kuwait City shocking – surely as many or more than found in any American city of similar size.  Likely as a consequence of this imported unhealthy diet and lack of exercise, Arabian Gulf citizens are becoming progressively fatter and are increasingly contracting type II diabetes.  Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar have all experienced this same rapid increase in wealth that has accelerated the penetration of diabetes.

Medical research reinforces the importance of acknowledging diabetes as the severe medical and social adversary it is.  It has long been known that diabetes increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, blindness, renal failure, and amputation. It is estimated that obesity and diabetes each reduce a patient’s life by about 8 years, with the accompanying tragic results for the entire extended family.  But now diabetic patients have one more thing to worry about:  a very recent study has confirmed the suspicion that diabetics may also be at increased risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

Beyond the devastating individual price of this disease, the growing prevalence of diabetes in the Gulf could well slow or even cripple national development plans.  A war against diabetes must be declared, using prevention as the primary weapon of choice.

Of necessity, the public sector must lead the campaign of education concerning the importance of exercise and diet, as Cuba has done. Reducing consumption of fast food should be a focus.  Time is running out – without question for individual health, but arguably for the societal and economic health of Gulf nations as well.

Brian K. Kennedy, PhD is the President & CEO Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California.

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