Overweight Youth May Face Increased Risk From COVID-19

New research suggests a disturbing link.

Posted May 27, 2020

By the time you read this the number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. will have exceeded 100,000 and 1.6 million will have been infected with the coronavirus. The news media have warned us that people with pre-existing conditions like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension, as well as the elderly are most at risk, while younger adults are less likely to suffer from COVID-19. A study from Italy, published in April, found that the median age of 1,591 intensive care patients was 63 years old.

Similar findings were reported in the news, leading many to conclude that younger, healthier folks are less likely to die. If they should contract the virus, it was assumed that their cases will be milder than those of older or more compromised individuals. Many young people have since resisted appeals for social distancing, wearing facemasks, and sheltering in place. 

Although widespread, these early reports from other countries might not be as relevant in the U.S. as they seem. In Italy, the prevalence of obesity is 20 percent, in China, it’s 6 percent, and it's 24 percent in Spain; it’s about 40 percent in the U.S. And a recent analysis from researchers at Johns Hopkins suggests that young people who are overweight or obese are at higher risk. 

The researchers looked at COVID-19 patients admitted to intensive care units at six university hospitals. In their sample of 265 patients, they found that younger COVID-19 patients were more likely to have obesity. The median BMI of young patients was 29.3, just shy of 30, which is the cutoff for obesity. Only 25 percent of young COVID-19 patients had BMIs below 26, in the normal range. The authors of the study conclude: “...in populations with a high prevalence of obesity, COVID-19 will affect younger populations more than previously reported.” In other words, being young may not confer the same protection from the coronavirus if you are overweight or obese. 

Admittedly, the findings were based on a relatively small sample from six university hospitals. Nonetheless, given the prevalence of obesity in the U.S., the study lends further support to the need for social distancing by everyone, regardless of age. 

References

Kass, D. A., Duggl, P. & Cignolani, O. (2020). Obesity could shift severe COVID-19 disease to younger ages. Lancet, 395,1544-1545.