Obesity is a serious health issue in America because it increases the risk of other complications, including heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Now new research suggests that obesity may also be linked to severe cases of COVID-19.
Studies Reveal Preliminary Evidence
To date, at least three studies have explored the potential connection between obesity and COVID-19, hoping to answer the question: does obesity put patients at higher risk of the coronavirus?
One UK-based study of nearly 17,000 hospital patients with COVID-19 revealed that obese patients had a 33% greater risk of dying than those who were not obese. Another study out of the UK focused on critically ill patients in the intensive care unit. Nearly 35% of those patients were overweight, 31.5% were obese, and 7% morbidly obese. Overall, that equals 73% of critically ill patients classified as obese compared to 26% with a healthy BMI.
The National Health Service, which provides healthcare for all UK citizens, also performed a study of its electronic health records. The data indicate that obese COVID-19 patients faced double the risk of dying from the coronavirus when compared to others. Their risk rose even higher when obesity-related health conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease were taken into consideration.
Chinese research echoes these findings. In two cohorts of Chinese adults with COVID-19, those with obesity were at least three times more likely to have a severe case of the disease.
This evidence is so compelling that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now lists severe obesity as a risk factor for severe COVID-19. According to the CDC, severe obesity is defined as a BMI of 40 or above.
Why Is Obesity a Risk Factor for COVID-19?
Obesity is believed to be such a major risk factor for COVID-19 due to the effect it has on the body’s respiratory system. The extra fat and weight that sits on the body cause resistance in the airways, lower lung volume, and weaker respiratory muscles, all of which are essential in the defense against coronavirus infection.
As a result, obesity increases the likelihood of COVID-19-induced pneumonia, which leads to the use of a ventilator and higher risk of death. The other complications closely associated with obesity, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, also make people susceptible to infection, so people with obesity face a double or triple threat.
Diabetes, for example, has been identified as a major risk factor in COVID-19 patients. “There is data emerging showing that hyperglycemia [high levels of glucose in the blood], even in the range where diabetes cannot be diagnosed, is a strong and independent predictor of a severe course of COVID-19,” explains Dr. Norbert Stefan of the German Center for Diabetes Research.
The bottom line? Though obesity does not increase the likelihood of infection, it does increase the risk of worsened outcomes. As Gian P. Fadini, MD, PhD, associate professor of endocrinology at the University of Padova, Italy, explained, “People with diabetes can be reassured they are not at higher risk for becoming infected, but they have to pay additional attention to symptoms and signs of disease progression.”