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Does Obesity Increase Coronavirus Risk?

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a frightening wake-up call. 3 months ago, no one in the U.S. would have predicted our current social and economic hardships. As we have settled into our new reality of social distancing and telecommuting, we have quickly learned more about this virus, including who is at greatest risk. Unfortunately, it has not been surprising that the elderly or younger populations with serious chronic diseases were in the high-risk category.  

But my attention has been grabbed by obesity being an independent and serious risk variable that translates into increased rates of hospitalizations and fatalities. Simply put, obese people even without medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease have been categorized into one of the highest risk groups.  As a weight loss surgeon, I feel compelled to educate our community about this reality. 

The CDC has just reported the top pre-existing conditions of patients hospitalized for coronavirus with each medical condition divided into different age groups. Obesity ranked as the second most common pre-existing condition at nearly 50%, just behind high blood pressure. Surprisingly, many of these hospitalized patients were young. More than half of these patients were between the ages of 18-49. 

This means even if you are 29 and have no other health conditions but are severely overweight or obese, you are more at risk of being hospitalized due to coronavirus than someone with a chronic lung disease like asthma.

These statistics translate to real-life stories. At Cornell’s surgical intensive-care unit, a dietitian told Business Insider that every one of her 60 ventilated patients was obese, whether they were in their 20s or 80s.

History repeats itself. During the 2009 flu pandemic, patients with obesity were twice as likely to be hospitalized compared with the rest of California patients. Obesity’s role in the likelihood of contracting viruses has established a consistent pattern. It appears that obese people will continue to be at high risk when we are confronted with serious epidemics in the future.  

The fact that obesity is a leading pre-existing condition relative to contracting coronavirus is not exclusive to the U.S. With obesity being a serious global health issue, other countries are reporting similar data. For example, France’s chief epidemiologist expressed his concern that as many of 17 million of the country’s citizens were seriously at risk for contracting COVID-19 due to obesity as a pre-existing condition. Presently, 10% of the French population has obesity. With a staggering 40% of the American population being obese, it is no surprise that France’s chief epidemiologist addressed his concern for “our friends in America, where obesity is well known.”

The UK has created a guideline with a list of pre-existing conditions that make people more susceptible to contracting COVID-19. Obesity was included in this list along with Parkinson’s disease, AIDS, sickle-cell anemia, and diabetes. It is alarming that obesity is included in this list of other serious conditions and it demonstrates the seriousness of obesity as a medical condition. 

Why is obesity in of itself such a risk factor in contracting coronavirus? Studies are currently being conducted, however, we can hypothesize the following:

  1. People with obesity who appear to be otherwise healthy, may already be early on the spectrum of developing hypertension and diabetes, which are known risk factors for poor outcomes with coronavirus.

  2. Since coronavirus primarily affects the respiratory system, patients with obesity are more severely impacted than those of a healthy weight because of reduced lung capacity. 

  3. There may also be a mechanism on the cellular level whereby the virus invades cells more easily in the obese patient.   

The ‘New Normal’ Isn’t Necessarily the Healthy Normal

Strategies including “social distancing” may help control the spread of the coronavirus, but they only exacerbate the root causes of obesity. As we isolate ourselves and businesses close, so do opportunities for exercise. Gyms are closed. Children can’t play in groups outside. As we know, sedentary lifestyles are a major contributor of obesity.

Emotional eating is a key psychological contributor to obesity. With a decreased ability to socialize, people may become depressed. This can lead to people eating out of boredom and sadness, including high-calorie  “comfort” foods. Finally, people are more fearful of going to the grocery store to shop for fresh foods, making them more inclined to eat canned and processed foods. 

Public awareness of the danger of morbid obesity is now reasonably high.  Most patients I consult with know that it is important to lose weight to prevent conditions from arising in the future, even if they currently are completely healthy. The experience with Covid changes this equation. Obesity appears to be a serious medical condition in and of itself. We are witnessing a higher risk of infection and certainly a higher risk of hospitalizations in the obese population. It is imperative that the danger of obesity is recognized and that measures to prevent and manage this health condition are applied urgently.

At our clinic, Marina Weight Loss Center, we are experts in treating obesity. We are also prepared to do so in the wake of this pandemic. Our staff is easily accessible through telemedicine options including phone calls and video. In order to help the Los Angeles community during this pandemic, our clinic is offering free weight loss seminars along with free preliminary consultations. 

We will continue to educate the community on the relationship between coronavirus and obesity. What we can say for certain is this: The Obesity crisis and the coronavirus pandemic are intertwined with each exacerbating the other.  

To learn more or schedule a consultation with Dr. Korman, contact us here or call the office: 310-577-5540.

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