Several studies have found that obesity was the second highest predictor of severe coronavirus disease, with old age being the first

By Julie Mazziotta
April 17, 2020 01:13 PM
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Credit: Erwin Jacob Miciano/AP/Shutterstock

Obesity is one of the highest risk factors for developing a severe case of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, and young adults appear to be affected more than others.

According to several new preliminary studies from around the world, obesity is the second highest risk factor for severe cases of COVID-19, with old age being the first, The New York Times reported.

And while obesity is often linked to other health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease — which could also be risk factors for COVID-19 — this new research points to the condition itself as the issue. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, and those with obesity tend to have decreased lung function. Obesity also causes inflammation in the body, which tends to lead to worse reactions to COVID-19.

One large study of 4,000 COVID-19 patients at NYU Langone Hospital in New York City found that obesity was the second-highest reason why patients were hospitalized with COVID-19.

“Obesity is more important for hospitalization than whether you have high blood pressure or diabetes, though these often go together, and it’s more important than coronary disease or cancer or kidney disease, or even pulmonary disease,” Dr. Leora Horwitz, director of the Center for Healthcare Innovation and Delivery Science at NYU Langone and senior author on the study, told the Times.

Another, separate study from NYU Langone found that patients under 60 years old with a body mass index (BMI) between 30 and 34 were twice as likely to be admitted to the hospital with severe cases of COVID-19, and 1.8 times more likely to need treatment in the intensive care unit.

“Obesity appears to be a previously unrecognized risk factor for hospital admission and need for critical care,” the study authors wrote.

And a review of data from 393 COVID-19 patients at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital found that obesity was a factor in half of the adults under 54 who were admitted to the hospitals.

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Dr. Roy Gulick, chief of infectious diseases at Weill Cornell Medicine, told the Times that this research should be a major concern in the U.S., where the obesity rate is one of the highest in the world. He added that this should also worry the southern states that are seeing an influx of cases now, and are also home to the highest obesity rates in the country.

“If obesity does turn out to be an important risk factor for younger people, and we look at the rest of the United States — where obesity rates are higher than in New York — that will be of great concern,” Gulick told the Times. “We may see a lot more younger people being hospitalized.”

Similar studies in China and France also found that a significant amount of COVID-19 patients were obese. One French study of 124 patients in intensive care found that the need for ventilation increased based on their weight, and 47 percent of those patients were obese or severely obese.

Several doctors told the Times that the heighted risk factor for younger adults with obesity are in line with what they’re seeing at their hospitals. One, at Mount Sinai Hospital on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, said that most of his critical COVID-19 patients were over 50 with preexisiting, significant medical problems, but the two that were in their 30s were both obese.

“It looks like, for them, obesity is the risk factor,” Dr. Sanam Ahmed told the outlet.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.