Global epidemics come in many forms and attract different kinds of attention depending on the severity of the diseases. But as Fathimah’s research demonstrates, there’s a risk that comes with giving too little attention to epidemics that don’t have immediate life altering/threatening effects. It’s for this exact reason that obesity is often overlooked in terms of severity. In the short term, obesity isn’t life threatening perse, but over time, the complications of obesity become progressively more dangerous and ultimately life threatening. With around 40 percent of the global population being overweight and 13 percent suffering from obesity, Fathimah’s recent PhD research on the topic might prove invaluable in the future.
Research premise and project
The ‘neglectfulness’ of the seriousness surrounding obesity urged Fathimah Sigit to conduct research in the field. Because when untreated, obesity may lead to metabolic syndrome (a cluster of conditions that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. These conditions include increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels). “It’s one of the most common complications of obesity, and cardiometabolic diseases can occur in individuals with obesity mediated via the metabolic syndrome. I investigated how being overweight and obesity develop into the diseases we fear”, says Fathimah.
What really stands out in this research project is the population it’s focused on. “The majority of research on obesity is focused on white Caucasian populations. However, data gathered specifically from this group can’t be directly extrapolated to other ethnicities, etc. For my research, I was able to analyse data from already existing datasets, like the LUMC’s NEO (Netherlands Epidemiology of Obesity) and SUGARSPIN (SUGAR Scientific Program Indonesia – Nederland) studies, and from the Indonesian national health survey, which is routinely conducted every 5 years among more than a million Indonesian inhabitants, providing a more than decent representation of the Indonesian population as a whole”, says Fathimah, to which she adds: “I love how my study includes diverse populations, so that it can be extrapolated to a wider, more general public, especially the Asian population, who are known for their increased cardiometabolic risks.”
Fathimah found that 32% of the Indonesian population has metabolic syndrome. About half of them, particularly women, have abdominal obesity, which aligns with the already existing research on the subject. They are at risk of experiencing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. And as far as Fathimah is concerned, we need to take a step back to treat obesity and metabolic syndrome. “We tend to think: how do we cure diabetes? But we should rather intervene before diabetes gets a chance to develop. We need to reduce disease rates, not only to benefit the patient, but also the healthcare system. For example, public health efforts to prevent diabetes may financially cost the healthcare system less than treating it”, Fathimah states.
An interesting focus area that occurred in Fathimah’s research was studying the mental health aspect of obesity in populations. “When looking at individuals subjective perspective, we can help unravel underlying problems leading to severe illness. For example, although individuals with obesity are generally aware that their condition causes health burdens, those with abdominal obesity are less aware or don’t see their condition much as a burden. It just goes to show that the way people perceive their weight is very variable.”
It’s also concerning to see how psychological factors contribute to obesity progression, as 8.4% of individuals with obesity attribute/blame their psychological problem as the source of their obesity. “Obesity doesn’t come overnight. It gradually develops and people aren’t immediately aware of a problem. We should find a way to raise public awareness and empower people, and find ways to help, for example by developing lifestyle interventions that address not only the physical but also mental health needs of the population with obesity.”
Looking back and forward
Having finished her PhD, Fathimah is, above all, incredibly thankful for the people she’s met along the way. “I’ve had wonderful supervisors, Dr. Renée de Mutsert, Dr. Stella Trompet, and Prof. Frits Rosendaal, who guided me wonderfully, especially when I became a studying mother during my research. They, as parents themselves, really helped me manage and oversee my research when time was limited, providing me with valuable tips and tricks from their own experience. The LUMC is truly a place for someone to study and be professional. It’s like Hogwarts; all kinds of people are there and they all want to help. They’re so supportive and understanding. I would strongly encourage all curious and self-driven young researchers to study at the LUMC!”
And her recent promotion is only the beginning for the zealous researcher. “I want to contribute to as many studies as possible to build my expertise and profile. This will help me realize my ambition to lead my own study in the future”, says Fathimah. She will continue research in comparable subjects in Indonesia, where she’s already employed at the University of Indonesia.
Long have we awaited the moment that we could welcome international students at the LUMC again. Due to COVID, all student mobility was cancelled for over 1,5 years. And despite still having regulations in place, especially during the first semester of the academic year 2021-2022, it was refreshing to cautiously welcome international students again. We’re so pleased to see that the students who came to Leiden had a fun, meaningful and above all, educational experience. In a questionnaire, they’ve given us an insight into how they experienced student mobility during these strange times.
Twice a year, the Research Mobility Fellowships of the European Joint Programme on Rare Diseases (EJP RD) from the European Reference Networks (ERN) get awarded to prominent researchers or MDs to develop new skills and expertise in a European institution specialized in research on rare diseases.
On May 30th, international experts and politicians gathered in Leiden to discuss global health issues during the Global Impact in Health Symposium. Lively discussions were held on matters concerning equal worldwide access to vaccines and diversity within clinical research. New scientific insights were also shared, including on vaccine response differences between African and European populations. Missed the event? Check out the after movie and get in touch!