03 Covid Obesity
Why losing weight might protect you from Covid-19
02:13 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

In the holiday season, when the average American can easily pack on a few pounds, experts say there is another reason to pay attention to your weight: Covid-19.

People who are overweight or obese are at a much higher risk of much more severe disease and even death from Covid-19, and one new study suggests that losing weight can reduce that risk.

The obesity epidemic has been a threat to Americans’ health for years. It’s the second leading cause of preventable death, after smoking. With Covid-19, it becomes even more dangerous. One study found that 30% of Covid-19 hospitalizations were in people with obesity.

The obesity clinic where Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford works in Boston has a 1,000-plus person wait list that grew a lot longer with the pandemic. Even with more than a dozen specialists on staff, it’s not enough to meet the demand.

“We are overwhelmed with the volume of patients that have really made that connection between obesity and Covid and the need for them to get appropriate care,” said Cody Stanford, who is also an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

Obesity and the increased risk of Covid-19

People with obesity are 46% more at risk of getting Covid-19, according to a study from August. It found that they are also more at risk of getting really sick, facing a 113% higher chance of being hospitalized, a 74% higher risk of needing to be treated in the ICU and – perhaps most troubling of all – a 48% increased risk of death.

“The risk goes up and up and up with each increase” in body mass index (BMI), said study co-author Barry Popkin, a distinguished professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Dozens of studies have shown similar results.

Research from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also found that those with the lowest risks of Covid-19 severity had BMIs near the threshold between healthy weight and overweight in most instances, and the risk went up with higher BMI.

Another study that looked at records from more than 6.9 million people in the UK found a direct increase in the risk of severe Covid-19 leading to admission to hospital and death in people at the top of what’s considered a healthy BMI; it increased with more weight.

Does losing weight reduce Covid-19 risk?

The increased risk has led many to wonder if losing weight might keep them from catching or getting sicker with Covid-19.

Ethically, it would be nearly impossible to do randomized controlled trials to determine this, according to Dr. David Kass, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine. But scientists have seen how weight loss can help in trials for other diseases with similar problems.

“There’s no question, in controlled trials with people who are obese and have heart failure, that if they go through a weight reduction or an exercise program or a combination, and we look at this marker of how they are doing, the answers to that are yes, there is evidence that weight loss is a good thing,” Kass said.

A large retrospective study published last week in JAMA Surgery suggests that substantial weight loss makes a difference.

The study, looking at records from 20,212 people for more than six years, was funded by a grant from Medtronic, which makes devices for weight loss surgery.

The rates of positive Covid-19 tests were similar in the surgical and control groups: 9.1% and 8.7%, respectively. The weight loss among the group that had surgery was associated with a lower risk of hospitalization, need for supplemental oxygen and severe symptoms from a Covid-19 infection. This patient group also had a 53% lower 10-year cumulative incidence of all-cause non-Covid mortality, compared with the control group.

“The findings suggest that obesity can be a modifiable risk factor for the severity of Covid-19 infection,” the study said.

Dr. Steven Nissen, a cardiologist with Cleveland Clinic who co-authored the study, said it’s important to understand that weight loss is the key with this study, not the surgery itself.

The surgery just happens to be an effective way to lose weight.

“Losing weight is completely reversible,” Nissen said. “As far as we can tell, if you lose weight, then your risk of serious Covid and Covid morbidity and mortality goes way down.”

Why obesity is a threat

Obesity is a problem with Covid-19 for a variety of biological reasons.

“Fat cells are living cells, and as soon as you start to accumulate them, they’re essentially impacting your immune system negatively,” Popkin said. “From the word go, they’re inflamed.”