How Much Does Obesity Explain COVID Death Rates?

When World Obesity Day rolled around this year, a popular and sensational factoid was that nine out of ten COVID deaths were in countries with high obesity rates. It served to grab attention, but we’re not big fans of the sensationalism in that factoid. Because obesity might be important, but it does not explain 90 percent of the variation in COVID death rates.

In fact, a new study offers us much more insight, with less sensation. Obesity really is an important factor for explaining the variation in COVID death rates between wealthy countries. It is one of ten factors that explain 63 percent of that variation.

In the end, obesity prevalence is the factor that has the strongest association with COVID death rates across these countries.

Data from 30 Wealthy Countries

This was a careful analysis of data from 30 wealthy countries. Julian Gardiner, Jude Oben, and Alastair Sutcliffe looked at death rates from the beginning of the pandemic through July, 2020. They started with 14 variables and wound up with a model that used ten of them. Those ten variables explained most, but not all, of the differences in death rates between countries. Say the authors:

“Some of the unexplained variation is probably attributable to inter-country differences in the definition of a COVID-19 death and in the completeness of the recording of COVID-19 deaths.”

Ten Factors That Explain a Lot

High obesity rates leave the population of a country vulnerable to severe outcomes with COVID-19. This is why obesity landed at the top of the list. Among the factors to explain variations in COVID death rates between countries, it was number one. Hypertension prevalence came in second, with population density close behind.

Three factors related to age were also important to the model: life expectancy, the percent of the population over 65, and the percent under 15. Diabetes prevalence came in seventh. The last three factors were the delay in national measures for controlling COVID, per capita GDP, and mean temperature. That last measure was the sole measure with an inverse correlation. Warmer countries had lower death rates.

Health Not Wealth

It’s worth noting that health, not wealth, was important for protecting a country’s population in this pandemic. Obesity, hypertension, and diabetes prevalence all predicted higher COVID death rates. Higher GDP did not afford protection – in fact it correlated with higher death rates.

The lesson here is not about the burden of obesity and other chronic diseases. Rather it is all about the opportunity to improve the health of the population – by doing a better job with obesity. Less blame, more care, and more effective prevention strategies would go a long way to protect us from future pandemics.

Click here for the study by Gardiner, Oben, and Sutcliffe. For more on the relationship between obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and COVID-19 outcomes, click here. You can find resources from the Obesity Society on COVID-19 here. Finally, click here for more on they synergistic pandemics of obesity and COVID-19.

Creation of the World III, painting by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis / WikiArt

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April 10, 2021