In the midst of the global pandemic, patterns are beginning to emerge, particularly in relation to people who are most at risk of hospitalization and complications. According to the CDC, high-risk individuals include the severely obese — people with a body mass index, or BMI, over 40. It’s a telling inclusion, particularly given current demographic breakdowns on coronavirus. Increasingly, these breakdowns are tracking the BMIs of COVID-19 patients. This is what people need to understand about obesity as a risk factor for COVID-19.
A Uniquely American Factor
From the aging population in Italy to the prevalence of smoking and pollution in China, different countries have unique risk factors in relation to the disease. In the United States, BMI is becoming a major player. The threshold for obesity is 30, and 42% of American adults exceed that number, with 9% falling into the severely obese classification with a BMI of 40 or more.
A recent Newsweek article shares the study from the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, which assessed different factors linked to critical illness and hospitalization with COVID-19. With 4,103 patients who had tested positive for the disease, researchers identified risk factors among those with the most serious outcomes. Nearly 2,000 patients were admitted to the hospital and 650 required intensive care, a ventilator, were discharged to hospice care, or died. While age was the single biggest risk factor among this group, researchers identified obesity, heart failure and chronic kidney disease as common factors among the severe coronavirus cases.
One of the study’s authors notes that obesity increases the amount of inflammation in the body. With severe cases of COVID-19, an inflammation response in the body can create irritation in the lungs. It’s possible that obesity’s tendency to worsen inflammation is a contributing factor to the worst COVID-19 outcomes.
The lowered oxygen levels of someone with severe obesity may also be an explanation. Meanwhile, the World Obesity Federation notes that hospitalization itself poses issues for obese patients, including intubation problems, weight limits on diagnostic machines, and logistical challenges.
It should be noted that as pre-print research, the study has not yet been peer reviewed and the researchers themselves pointed out the limitations to their efforts, including a sample pool from the same health system in New York.
Understanding the Threat
At this time, it’s important for everyone to take necessary precautions to continue flattening the curve. And the science now shows that we need to take extra care of our seniors and those with severe obesity to prevent the spread to these loved ones until we have a proven vaccine.
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