The United Arab Emirates, established in 1971, is one of the youngest countries in the world, and when you get there, pretty much everything you see around you is new. It is also one of the wealthiest, most neutral, and most inclusive countries in the world, trying to attract top talent and technology companies in the most promising areas of human development, such as AI, digital health, and sustainable energy. Today, it is a melting pot bringing people from all over the world.
In 2013, out of the 9.2 million inhabitants, only 1.4 million were Emirati citizens. Since the local population is so small, dates back many centuries, and is organized as the electoral monarchy, where bloodlines play a very important role, the country introduced mandatory premarital genetic testing for all Emiratis to reduce the incidence of severe genetic diseases. Leading the program is Her Excellency Dr. Maryam Matar, who I happened to meet during Arab Health week in February 2022. I attended her talk organized by the Dubai-based P4ML, led by the proud Irishman Patrick Moloney. When Dr. Matar took the stage, she started her talk with an introduction to the achievements of UAE Genetic Diseases Association and potential negative impact of rare diseases in the UAE. She explained the significant initiatives introduced by the government to reduce the prevalence of common genetic disorders such as mandatory premarital screening.
Then, serendipitously, she shifted gears and started talking about the most important cause in biomedicine – human longevity. She opened with the introduction of the biomarkers of aging dubbed the aging clocks, presented the recent works by David Sinclair and Nir Barzilai, and concluded with her own research in this area with a focus on role of sleep hygiene and the microbiome. Since I founded the largest volunteer-run educational program in longevity medicine, I thought that I knew pretty much every major practitioner in the field. But Dr. Matar made it clear that the research her group is conducting is published mostly in journals geared toward the Arab nations and building the local ecosystem in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
The next day, Dr. Matar agreed to give a talk at the opening ceremony of the first AI and quantum computing research center in Abu Dhabi. Again, she focused on the biomarkers of aging, sleep hygiene and the microbiomes, and the epigenetic reprogramming tools available for the community. Most importantly, she explained in simple terms what the future of longevity medicine is and why it is important. After the event, I took the liberty and asked her a few questions. And we sat down for a conversation.
Dr. Maryam Mohamed Fatma Matar, MD, PhD, is an Emirati geneticist, medical researcher, and runs a TV program “With Dr.Maryam” on the National channel of United Arab Emirates (UAE). A physician by qualification, she obtained her medical degree in Dubai, she pursued a Ph.D. degree. After the completion of her degrees in medicine and in business, she was shortlisted and recruited by the Government of the UAE to lead Dubai community development strategy 2006-2016. While working for the government, Dr. Matar became the first Emirati woman to hold the position of Senior Undersecretary of the of Public health and Primary health care at Ministry of Health in 2008 and than she was promoted to be the first Emirati woman to hold the position of Director General in the Dubai government at the Community Development Authority in 2008
In 2004 she founded the UAE Genetic Diseases Association. She also founded the Sheikh Zayed Genetic Research Center and became a committee member of the Global Commission to End the Diagnostic Odyssey for Children with a Rare Disease. In last two decades, she has founded more than 14 nonprofit associations in the field of health advocacy and awareness and founded several initiatives on women leadership and girls in STEM for the UAE. Several of these outfits grew rapidly as they serve a critical need of the community and are functioning as independent associations today. In 2019, Dr. Maryam Matar received the coveted ‘Pioneering Arab Woman in healthcare innovation in Kuwait, and was highlighted as the top 20 Arab scientists with the biggest contribution to humanity by British Scientific Community. She is named among 100 most powerful Arab women more than six times and is recognised as one of the most influential Muslim female scientists.
During the World Government Summit in Dubai, I got to speak with Dr. Matar at length to learn about the longevity initiatives in the UAE and her role in the longevity community.
“I just wanted to make it clear from the very beginning that from the Islamic point of view, nobody can help anyone live longer. But what we can do is to improve the quality of peoples’ lives and elongate the healthy portion of their life”, said Dr. Matar.
This came to me as a surprise. Before opening an AI research center in Abu Dhabi, we got extensive cultural training to prevent any disrespectful behavior. But I never realized that direct focus on increased lifespan would be incoherent with the local religious views. I politely made a disclaimer that in light of this new information, let’s assume that the word “longevity” means increased health span and improved quality of life. We proceeded.
“As a young physician, my aim was to specialize in the field of plastic surgery and use the technology and tools available then, to help women young. Since then my passion for well-being and staying ageless has continued but my approach became more holistic and comprehensive with the help of Epigenetics. I was actively involved in the global community of advanced genetic sciences, especially cell aging and rejuvenation therapies and I have learned and deepened my skills, knowledge, and qualifications in this field for many years. The last decade has been transformative in genetic sciences and very rapid progress is made in the field of Epigenetics and regenerative therapies globally”, continued Dr. Matar.
I went on and asked about what the UAE is doing to increase the healthy longevity of its citizens. Again, assuming that longevity means increased health span. Dr. Matar explained.
“UAE nationals had a life expectancy of 60 years in the mid-70s, and in 2022 it is 78.9 years, a leap in a very short time. The government has taken health as one of the key indicators of development and there has been a very strategic commitment with a focus on multiple factors that affect health.
The UAE government has created one of the best public health services systems and infrastructures in the world. The Government has identified the leading causes of diseases and mortality such as infectious diseases, and the burden of genetic disorders, and successfully managed, minimized, or eliminated such causes in a short span of time. Accessibility and affordability of good healthcare and a shift towards prevention have paid dividends for the country. Improving the quality of life, healthier lifestyles and a focus on creating awareness among the younger generations are major steps towards increasing the longevity of the citizens. Leading medical, research, and healthcare institutions in the UAE are contributing towards the vision of a healthier nation with programs, studies, and initiatives.
There are surprises – several national programs, emphasizing the reprogramming the genes, reversal of biological age, and healthier and happy life for the citizens.
UAE is already among the leading countries that are bringing the future possibilities to become real in the present. The future of longevity in UAE is bright as here we are not only talking about the lifespan but also additionally ensuring an outstanding quality of life. UAE is undisputedly one of the best countries to have a high quality of life, enjoy a successful and happy life for oneself and for your family, and be part of a positive and peaceful society. This is my invitation to all peace-loving, creative, and smart people to consider UAE as their second home.
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