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Why Obesity Increases the Severity of COVID-19 Symptoms

May 11, 2020

It has been well-documented that those with preexisting conditions are among the most vulnerable to coronavirus. Perhaps the most overlooked of those conditions is obesity.

That has been illustrated most tragically in New Orleans. As of April 2, high levels of obesity and related issues had likely contributed to a per-capita death rate from COVID-19 that was twice that of New York City. Of those who died, 40 percent were suffering from diabetes. Twenty-five percent were obese. Twenty-three percent were suffering from kidney disease, and 21 percent were afflicted with cardiac issues.

The Centers for Disease Control does in fact list the severely obese as being among those at higher risk of contracting coronavirus. Severe obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) over 40. Jennifer Lighter, an epidemiologist at New York University’s Langone School of Medicine, told Science News that BMI is “the Achilles Heel for American patients.”

The U.S. obesity rate is 30.9 percent but it is 36.8 in Louisiana, which is fourth in the nation behind West Virginia (39.5), Mississippi (39.5) and Arkansas (37.1). The high obesity rate helps to explain Louisiana’s elevated mortality rate from COVID-19. 

The link between obesity and coronavirus is reflected elsewhere, too. Jennifer Lighter noted that at her facility, COVID-19 patients under the age of 60 with a BMI over 35 were twice as likely to require intensive care as other patients. They were three times more likely to die of the disease.

Those results were reflected at a hospital in Lille, France. Of 124 coronavirus patients admitted to the ICU, nearly half were obese. Of the 85 who were intubated, 90 percent had a BMI over 35.

Experts cite two reasons as to why obese patients are so vulnerable to COVID-19. The first is that they tend to carry more weight on their chest. Those excess pounds compress the lungs and lead to breathing problems. As a result, a disease largely respiratory in nature is made worse.

The other reason is that obese people tend to have higher levels of angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). That enzyme happens to bind particularly well with viruses. 

Though the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise were already clear, this is one more good reason to take care of your body. 

For those who are already carrying around extra weight, it is even more important to follow strict coronavirus protocols. Observing stay-at-home orders and following social distancing guidelines can be even more of a life-saver. The same holds true for washing hands and avoiding touching your face. 

For more information on how to stay safe during the COVID-19 outbreak, please visit the following websites:


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