Covid-19 Will Not Be the Only Virus Obesity Affects

In a previous article, we established that obesity is an independent variable as a factor for hospitalization after patients contract COVID-19. In one study, it was the most common factor for hospitalizations second only to hypertension. Although shocking, this does make sense. After all, 42% of Americans are obese. By the numbers, it would translate that they make up a higher percentage of the hospitalized population. But why is this a reality?

Data shows people who are obese are more likely to develop common infections, including viral infections. When a pathogen enters the body, your immune system takes action. White blood cells emit proteins called cytokines, which causes inflammation. When a person is at a healthy weight, inflammation enables white blood cells to attack the invading virus and kill it. After the viral cells are killed, the inflammation subsides. 

Cytokines are not only emitted by white blood cells. They are also emitted by fat cells. When a person is obese, the consistent emission of cytokines causes low-grade, chronic inflammation. This puts the body’s immune system under a constant state of stress and high alert. Therefore, when a virus enters the body, it isn’t as prepared as a normal-weight body would be. 

As Dr. Matthew Hutter, the President for the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery explains, “It (obesity) makes people sick, and we’re realizing that now.”

We can conclude from a recent study of 168 countries that there are barriers in treating obese patients. 

  1. Obesity is not yet defined as a disease as a whole by the medical community. Studies show few countries are ready to accept this definition.
  2. Necessary conditions to treat obese patients are not adequate. 
  3. There are high costs and wait times associated with treating obese patients.


An International Issue

A study from a hospital in Shenzhen, China  of COVID-19 patients with a high BMI (30 or greater) had more than double the risk of developing severe pneumonia than patients with a healthy weight. Obese men were almost six times more likely to develop pneumonia than patients with a healthy weight. In another Chinese study of 17 patients who did not survive coronavirus, 15 of them had a BMI of over 25, meaning they were either overweight or obese. This statistic is particularly alarming, as only 6% of the Chinese population is obese. With the obesity rate 7 times the rate in China, it’s safe to say COVID-19 is more detrimental in the obese U.S population.

There were similar results In a French study, which concluded that the obese patients experienced a more severe case of COVID-19 than patients with a healthy BMI (under 30). 

Youth isn’t necessarily on your side

According to the New York Times, the COVID-19 does not discriminate – it affects people all of all ages struggling with obesity- even younger populations. 

 “Unfortunately, obesity in people younger than 60 is a newly identified epidemiologic risk factor which may contribute to increased morbidity rates experienced in the US.” – Dr. Jennifer Lighter, New York University Langone Health explains in an in-depth article about the relationship between obesity and Covid-19.

The COVID-19–Associated Hospitalization Surveillance Network (COVID-NET) collected data of patients hospitalized from March 1-30, 2020. Almost 90% of the patients had underlying conditions. Obesity was actually the highest underlying condition for hospitalized patients between the ages of 18-49. Of these patients, 60% were obese. In the 50-64 year old age group, it was 49%.

In a study by NYU School of Medicine 3,615 individuals under the age of 60 who tested positive for COVID-19 were analyzed. 37% of the patients were clinically obese. 

These alarming statistics are a signal to the medical community that the complications due to obesity reach far beyond hypertension and heart disease. The tie between obesity and coronavirus will not be unique. Future flu outbreaks will also be impacted by the rate of obesity. By “flattening the curve” of the growth of obesity, we can prevent future flu epidemic spikes. Our goal is to help educate the medical community to recognize the severity of obesity’s global impact so we can work together to lower the rate of this epidemic now. 

Obesity is a disease. It makes sense that the statistic of over 40% of America suffering from obesity would translate into a higher prevalence of hospitalized Covid-19 patients having this disease as a pre-existing condition. As shown from the multiple studies above, this is not a domestic issue. The obesity epidemic is playing an unfortunately significant role in the Covid-19 pandemic. However, this education can help the medical community to recognize the significance of obesity and work together to lower the rate of global obesity. 

Are you a physician who treats a significant number of people with obesity in your patient base? 

Call our office at  408-358-1855 to learn more about how Dr. Nguyen treats patients with obesity.