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Challenging misconceptions around heart health in the Gulf

Article-Challenging misconceptions around heart health in the Gulf

CanvaPro Myths about heart health
On Emirati Women's Day today, Dr. Farhana Bin Lootah, an Emirati physician, debunks myths around cardiovascular disease.

Navigating the ever-evolving landscape of medicine is a constant challenge for healthcare professionals, and staying abreast of the latest trends and patterns in healthcare is crucial to effectively and accurately treating patients. Throughout my career as a physician, one thing has remained constant: the prevalence of common misconceptions surrounding cardiovascular disease (CVD) in the Gulf.

Despite being the world's number one killer, CVD remains a silent assailant, often concealing its presence until it is too late. It encompasses a broad spectrum of conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels through the accumulation of cholesterol, fat, and other substances that cause plaque within the arteries, compromising blood flow to vital organs. If an artery becomes completely blocked or if a blood clot forms, it can lead to a heart attack or stroke, causing irreversible damage or even death.

While the exact causes of CVD can vary, risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, smoking, obesity, diabetes, and a sedentary lifestyle significantly contribute to its development. Regular cholesterol testing is crucial in managing the rising prevalence of CVD. By understanding the risk factors, such as low, moderate, high, or very high, and setting specific targets for LDL cholesterol levels (e.g., below 116mg/dL for low risk, below 100mg/dL for moderate risk, below 70mg/dL for high risk, and below 55mg/dL for very high risk), people can make informed decisions and take proactive, preventive measures.

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Public health campaigns and educational initiatives can play a vital role in dispelling these misconceptions and provide accurate information about the causes, symptoms, and prevention of CVD. On the other hand, patients who have already been diagnosed with Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease (ASCVD) require tailored care and intervention.

However, what we see in the healthcare space is numerous persistent misconceptions about CVD that foster a false sense of security among both the public and potential patients that deter them from taking necessary precautions or seeking appropriate medical care. In the Gulf, where CVD is responsible for 40 per cent of deaths and its risk factors like dyslipidaemia impact over 70 per cent of Emirati adults, this trend is particularly detrimental.

Unless effective intervention is implemented, the projected global annual deaths from cardiovascular disease are expected to increase from 17.5 million in 2012 to 22.2 million by the year 2030. Hence, the significance of illuminating the truth relating to cardiovascular disease and the importance of debunking misconceptions. This endeavour holds the key to equipping both patients and the public with valuable insights, fostering a shared awareness that has the potential to catalyse a unified drive towards better heart health.

Related: Can technology reduce the heart disease burden?

Debunking myths around cardiovascular disease

Some of the key misconceptions surrounding cardiovascular disease include:

Heart disease only affects older individuals

One prevalent misconception is that heart disease primarily affects the elderly population. However, studies show that the average age of patients with a heart attack in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is 10 years younger than in Western countries.

Heart disease primarily affects men, and women are not at significant risk

While cardiovascular disease affects twice as many men as it does women in the Gulf region, heart disease remains a leading cause of death for women globally. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), cardiovascular diseases claim the lives of approximately one in three women each year. Moreover, research conducted in the UAE has revealed an alarming prevalence of risk factors among women.

Cholesterol is good for your health

While it is true that not all cholesterol is bad, it is very important to understand how to manage your cholesterol levels – and more specifically, your LDL-C or "bad" cholesterol levels. High cholesterol is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease in the MENA region. In fact, one study found that 72.3 per cent of adults living in the northern Emirates showed levels of high cholesterol, while 38.6 per cent of them showed elevated levels of LDC-C cholesterol.

Heart disease is primarily caused by genetics and cannot be influenced by lifestyle choices

While certain genetic factors can predispose individuals to heart disease, lifestyle choices play a significant role in its development and progression. According to Harvard Health, nearly half of all premature deaths may be due to unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as insufficient exercise, poor diet, and smoking.

A healthy diet is the only way to treat or prevent CVD

While a healthy diet is an important part of heart health, it is not the only way to treat or prevent CVD. Other important lifestyle changes include regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking. In some cases, medications may also be necessary to help control risk factors for CVD.

If your LDL or "bad cholesterol" is low, you can stop treatment

Even if your LDL cholesterol is low, you may still be at risk for CVD if you have other risk factors, such as high blood pressure or diabetes. It is important to talk to your doctor about your individual risk factors and whether you need to continue treatment even if your LDL cholesterol is low.

By dispelling misconceptions and highlighting the realities of cardiovascular disease and heart health in the Gulf region, we can foster a more accurate understanding of the risks, the need for early intervention, and the importance of adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle.

As a physician, I stress the importance of regular check-ups with healthcare professionals to identify and manage risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD), such as elevated LDL-C levels, high blood pressure, and elevated glucose levels. Initiatives like the recently launched Unblocked campaign play a crucial role in challenging misconceptions, raising public awareness, and educating individuals about the silent killer, LDL-C, and the importance of screening.

Dr. Farhana Bin Lootah is an Emirati physician with expertise in Endocrinology, Lipidology and Diabetes at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre (ICLDC), AUH.

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